chitin (kĪtˈən) [key], main constituent of the shells of arthropods. Chitin, a polysaccharide (see carbohydrate) analogous in chemical structure to cellulose, consists of units of a glucose derivative ( N -acetyl- d -glucosamine) joined to form a long, unbranched chain. Like cellulose, chitin contributes strength and protection to the organism. In arthropods the chitinous shell, or exoskeleton, covers the surface of the body, does not grow, and is periodically cast off (molted). After the old shell is shed, a new, larger shell is secreted by the epidermis, providing room for future growth. The chitin is rigid except between some body segments and joints where it is thin and allows movement of adjacent parts. Chitin is also found in the cell walls of some fungi.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
More on chitin from Infoplease:
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Biochemistry