Amino acids are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and (in some cases) sulfur bonded in characteristic formations. Strings of amino acids make up proteins, of which there are countless varieties. Of the 20 amino acids required for manufacturing the proteins the human body needs, the body itself produces only 12, meaning that we have to meet our requirements for the other eight through nutrition. This is just one example of the importance of amino acids in the functioning of life. Another cautionary illustration of amino acids' power is the gamut of diseases (most notably, sickle cell anemia) that impair or claim the lives of those whose amino acids are out of sequence or malfunctioning. Once used in dating objects from the distant past, amino acids have existed on Earth for at least three billion years—long before the appearance of the first true organisms.
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a molecule in all cells that contains genetic codes for inheritance, creates encoded instructions for the synthesis of amino acids. In 1986, American medical scientist Thaddeus R. Dryja (1940-) used amino-acid sequences to identify and isolate the gene for a type of cancer known as retinoblastoma, a fact that illustrates the importance of amino acids in the body.
Amino acids are also present in hormones, chemicals that are essential to life. Among these hormones is insulin, which regulates sugar levels in the blood and without which a person would die. Another is adrenaline, which controls blood pressure and gives animals a sudden jolt of energy needed in a high-stress situation—running from a predator in the grasslands or (to a use a human example) facing a mugger in an alley or a bully on a playground. Biochemical studies of amino-acid sequences in hormones have made it