In solution it is the nature of the amino acid R-groups that dictate structure-function relationships of peptides and proteins. The hydrophobic amino acids will generally be encountered in the interior of proteins shielded from direct contact with water. Conversely, the hydrophilic amino acids are generally found on the exterior of proteins as well as in the active centers of enzymatically active proteins. Indeed, it is the very nature of certain amino acid R-groups that allow enzyme reactions to occur.
The imidazole ring of histidine allows it to act as either a proton donor or acceptor at physiological pH. Hence, it is frequently found in the reactive center of enzymes. Equally important is the ability of histidines in hemoglobin to buffer the H+ ions from carbonic acid ionization in red blood cells. It is this property of hemoglobin that allows it to exchange O2 and CO2 at the tissues or lungs, respectively.
The primary alcohol of serine and threonine as well as the thiol (-SH) of cysteine allow these amino acids to act as nucleophiles during enzymatic catalysis. Additionally, the thiol of cysteine is able to form a disulfide bond with other cysteines: Cysteine-SH + HS-Cysteine <--------> Cysteine-S-S-Cysteine This simple disulfide is identified as cystine. The formation of disulfide bonds between cysteines present within proteins is important to the formation of active structural domains in a large number of proteins. Disulfide bonding between cysteines in different polypeptide chains of oligomeric proteins plays a crucial role in ordering the structure of complex proteins, e.g. the insulin receptor.
King, PhD, Michael W. "Functional Significance of Amino Acid R-Groups." The Medical Biochemistry Page. 8/30/11. The Medical Biochemistry Page, Web. 8/31/11.