The cell's ability to synthesize protein is, in essence, the expression of its genetic makeup. Protein synthesis is a sequence of chemical reactions that occur in four distinct stages, i.e., activation of the amino acids that ultimately will be joined together by peptide bonds; initiation of the polypeptide chain at a cell organelle known as the ribosome; elongation of the polypeptide by stepwise addition of single amino acids to the chain; and termination of amino-acid additions and release of the completed protein from the ribosome. The information for the synthesis of specific amino-acid sequences is carried by a nucleic acid molecule called messenger RNA (see nucleic acid). Proteins are needed in the diet mainly for their amino acids, which the body uses to build new proteins (see nutrition).
The mechanism of action of many widely used antibiotics, such as streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline, can be understood in terms of their ability to interfere with some stage of protein synthesis in bacteria.