Satisfying The Body's Need for Energy
Every day, we build bones, move muscles, eat food, think, and perform many other activities with our bodies. All of these activities are based upon chemical reactions. However, most of these reactions are not spontaneous (i.e., they are accompanied by a positive change in free energy, ΔDG>0) and do not occur without some other source of free energy. Hence, the body needs some sort of "free-energy currency," (Figure 1) a molecule that can store and release free energy when it is needed to power a given biochemical reaction.
This tutorial will answer four questions:
1. How does the body "spend" free-energy currency to make a nonspontaneous reaction spontaneous? The answer, which is based on thermodynamics, is to use coupled reactions.
2. How is food used to produce the reducing agents (NADH and FADH2) that can regenerate the free-energy currency? The answer, from biology, is found in glycolysis and the citric-acid cycle.
3. How are the reducing agents (NADH and FADH2) able to generate the free-energy currency molecule (ATP)? Once again, coupled reactions are key.
4. What mechanism does the body use to couple the reducing agent reactions and the generation of ATP? ATP is synthesized primarily by a two-step process consisting of an electron-transport chain and a proton gradient. This process is based on electrochemistry and equilibrium, as well as thermodynamics.
The body satisfies it's never-ending need for energy through an elegant combination of processes that illustrate the principles of thermodynamics, electrochemistry and equilibrium.
How Free-Energy Currency Works
Coupled reactions are frequently used in the body to drive important biochemical processes. Separate chemical reactions may be added together to form a net reaction. The free-energy change (ΔG) for the net reaction is given by the sum of the free-energy changes for the individual reactions. For example, the phosphorylation of glycerol is a necessary step in forming the phospholipids that comprise cell membranes. (Recall from the experiment, "Membranes and Proteins: Dialysis, Detergents, and Proton Gradients," that the phospholipids that form cell membranes are formed from glycerol with a phosphate group and two fatty-acid chains attached.) This step actually consists of two reactions: (1) the phosphorylation of glycerol, and (2) the dephosphorylation of ATP (the free-energy-currency molecule). The reactions may be added as shown in Equations 2-4, below:
ATP is the most important "free-energy-currency" molecule in living organisms (see Figure 2, below). Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a useful free-energy currency because the dephosphorylation reaction is very spontaneous; i.e., it releases a large amount of free energy (30.5 kJ/mol). Thus, the dephosphorylation reaction of ATP to ADP and inorganic phosphate (Equation 3) is often coupled with nonspontaneous reactions (e.g., Equation 2) to drive them forward. The body's use of ATP as a free-energy currency is a very effective strategy to cause vital nonspontaneous reactions to occur.
As these coupled reactions (e.g., Equations 2-4) occur, we use up ATP. In a typical cell, an ATP molecule is used within a minute of its formation. During strenuous exercise, the rate of utilization of ATP is even higher. Hence, the supply of ATP must be regenerated. We consume food to provide energy for the body, but the majority of the energy in food is not in the form of ATP. The body utilizes energy from other nutrients in the diet to produce ATP through oxidation-reduction reactions (Figure 3).
How is Food Used to Make the Reducing Agents Needed for the Production of ATP?
To make ATP, energy must be absorbed. This energy is supplied by the food we eat, and then used to synthsize two reducing agents, NADH and FADH2 that are needed to produce ATP. One of the principal energy-yielding nutrients in our diet is glucose (see structure in Table 1 in the blue box below), a simple six-carbon sugar that can be broken down by the body. When the chemical bonds in glucose are broken, free energy is released. The complete breakdown of glucose into CO2 occurs in two processes: glycolysis and the citric-acid cycle. The reactions for these two processes are shown in the blue box below.
As seen in Equations 5-7 in the blue box, glycolysis and the citric-acid cycle produce a net total of only four ATP or GTP molecules (GTP is an energy-currency molecule similar to ATP) per glucose molecule. This yield is far below the amount needed by the body for normal functioning, and in fact is far below the actual ATP yield for glucose in aerobic organisms (organisms that use molecular oxygen). For each glucose molecule the body processes, the body actually gains approximately 30 ATP molecules! (See Figure 4, below.) So, how does the body generate ATP?
The process that accounts for the high ATP yield is known as oxidative phosphorylation. A quick examination of Equations 5-7 shows that glycolysis and the citric-acid cycle generate other products besides ATP and GTP, namely NADH and FADH2 (blue). These products are molecules that are oxidized (i.e., give up electrons) spontaneously. The body uses these reducing agents (NADH and FADH2) in an oxidation-reduction reaction . As you will see later in this tutorial, it is the free energy from these redox reactions that is used to drive the production of ATP.
In the discussion above, we see that glucose by itself generates only a tiny amount of ATP. However, during the breakdown of glucose, a large amount of NADH and FADH2 is produced; it is these reducing agents that dramatically increase the amount of ATP produced. How does this work?
How are the reducing agents (NADH and FADH2) able to generate the free-energy currency molecule (ATP)?
As discussed in an earlier section about coupling reactions, ATP is used as free-energy currency by coupling its (spontaneous) dephosphorylation (Equation 3) with a (nonspontaneous) biochemical reaction to give a net release of free energy (i.e., a net spontaneous reaction). Coupled reactions are also used to generate ATP by phosphorylating ADP. The nonspontaneous reaction of joining ADP to inorganic phosphate to make ATP (Equation 8, below, and Figure 2, above) is coupled to the oxidation reaction of NADH or FADH 2 (Equation 9, below). (Recall, NADH and FADH2 are produced in glycolysis and the citric-acid cycle as described in the blue box). For simplicity, we shall henceforth discuss only the oxidation of NADH; FADH2 follows a very similar oxidation pathway.
The oxidation reaction for NADH has a larger, but negative, ΔG than the positive ΔG required for the formation of ATP from ADP and phosphate. This set of coupled reactions is so important that it has been given a special name: oxidative phosphorylation. This name emphasizes the fact that an oxidation (of NADH) reaction (Equation 9 and Figure 5, below) is being coupled to a phosphorylation (of ADP) reaction (Equation 8, below, and Figure 2, above). In addition, we must consider the reduction reaction (gaining of electrons) that accompanies the oxidation of NADH. (Oxidation reactions are always accompanied by reduction reactions, because an electron given up by one group must be accepted by another group.) In this case, molecular oxygen (O2) is the electron acceptor, and the oxygen is reduced to water (Equation 10, below) .
The individual reactions of interest for oxidative phosphorylation are:
The net reaction is obtained by summing the coupled reactions, as shown in Equation 11, below.
The molecular changes that occur upon oxidation of NADH are shown in Figure 5, below.
In this tutorial, we have seen that nonspontaneous reactions in the body occur by coupling them with a very spontaneous reaction (usually the ATP reaction shown in Equation 3). We have just seen that ATP is produced by coupling the phosphorylation reaction with NADH oxidation (a very spontaneous reaction). But we have not yet answered the question: by what mechanism are these reactions coupled?
Coupling Reactions in Biological Systems
Every day your body carries out many nonspontaneous reactions. As discussed earlier, if a nonspontaneous reaction is coupled to a spontaneous reaction, as long as the sum of the free energies for the two reactions is negative, the coupled reactions will occur spontaneously. How is this coupling achieved in the body? Living systems couple reactions in several ways, but the most common method of coupling reactions is to carry out both reactions on the same enzyme. Consider again the phosphorylation of glycerol (Equations 2-4). Glycerol is phosphorylated by the enzyme glycerol kinase, which is found in your liver. The product of glycerol phosporylation, glycerol-3-phosphate (Equation 2), is used in the synthesis of phospholipids.
Glycerol kinase is a large protein comprised of about 500 amino acids. X-ray crystallography of the protein shows us that there is a deep groove or cleft in the protein where glycerol and ATP attach (see Figure 6, below). Because the enzyme holds the ATP and the glycerol in place, the phosphate can be transferred directly from the ATP to glycerol. Instead of two separate reactions where ATP loses a phosphate (Equation 3) and glycerol picks up a phosphate (Equation 2), the enzyme allows the phosphate to move directly from ATP to glycerol (Equation 4).
The coupling in oxidative phosphorylation uses a more complicated (and amazing!) mechanism, but the end result is the same: the reactions are linked together, the net free energy for the linked reactions is negative, and, therefore, the linked reactions are spontaneous.
Questions on ATP: The Body's Free-Energy Currency (How Free-Energy Currency Works)
Neglecting any differences in difficulty synthesizing or accessing these molecules by biological systems, rank the molecules in order of their efficiency as a free-energy currency (i.e., the amount of nonspontaneous reactions enabled per phosphate removed from a molecule of free-energy currency) from the most efficient to the least efficient.
Mechanism of Coupling the Oxidative-Phosphorylation Reactions
In order to couple the redox and phosphorylation reactions needed for ATP synthesis in the body, there must be some mechanism linking the reactions together. In cells, this is accomplished through an elegant proton-pumping system that occurs inside special double-membrane-bound organelles (specialized cellular components) known as mitochondria. A number of proteins are required to maintain this proton-pumping system and catalyze the oxidative and phosphorylation reactions.
Synthesis of ATP (Equation 8) is coupled with the oxidation of NADH (Equation 9) and the reduction of O2 (Equation 10). There are three key steps in this process:
These steps are outlined in Figure 7, below.
Cells use a proton-pumping system made up of proteins inside the mitochondria to generate ATP. Before we examine the details of ATP synthesis, we shall step back and look at the big picture by exploring the structure and function of the mitochondria, where oxidative phosphorylation occurs.
Structure and Function of the Mitochondria
The mitochondria (Figure 8) are where the oxidative-phosphorylation reactions occur. The mitochondria are specialized, rod-shaped (oval-shaped) cellular compartments (organelles) with dimensions of approximately 2 µm by 0.5 µm.(Recall that the protein Ferritin has a diameter of about 80 Å, or 8 x 10-3 µm.) Mitochondria are present in virtually every cell of the body. They contain the enzymes required for the citric-acid cycle (the last steps in the breakdown of glucose), oxidative phosphorylation, and the oxidation of fatty acids.
The mitochondrial membranes are crucial for this organelle's role in oxidative phosphorylation. As shown in Figure 8, mitochondria have two membranes, an inner and an outer membrane. The outer membrane is permeable to most small molecules and ions, because it contains large protein channels called porins. The inner membrane is impermeable to most ions and polar molecules. The inner membrane is the site of oxidative phosphorylation. Although the membrane is mostly impermeable, it contains special H+ (proton) channels and pumps that enable the coupling of the redox reaction involving NADH and O2 (Equations 9-10) to the phosphorylation reaction of ADP (Equation 8), as described below ("Oxidation-Reduction Reactions and Proton Pumping in Oxidative Phosphorylation"). (Recall the discussion of protein channels in the " Maintaining the Body's Chemistry: Dialysis in the Kidneys" Tutorial.)
As shown in Figure 8, inside the inner membrane is a space known as the matrix; the space between the two membranes is known as the intermembrane space. The matrix side of the inner membrane has a negative electrical charge relative to the intermembrane space due to an H+ gradient set up by the redox reaction (Equations 9 and 10). This charge difference is used to provide free energy (G) for the phosphorylation reaction (Equation 8).
Oxidation-Reduction Reactions and Proton Pumping in Oxidative Phosphorylation
Phosphorylation of ADP (Equation 8) is coupled to the oxidation-reduction reaction of NADH and O2 (Equations 9 and 10). Electrons are not transferred directly from NADH to O2, but rather pass through a series of intermediate electron carriers in the inner membrane of the mitochondrion. Why? This allows something very important to occur: the pumping of protons across the inner membrane of the mitochondrion. As we shall see, it is this proton pumping that is ultimately responsible for coupling the oxidation-reduction reaction to ATP synthesis.
Two major types of mitochondrial proteins (see Figure 9, below) are required for oxidative phosphorylation to occur. Both classes of proteins are located in the inner mitochondrial membrane.
The electron carriers can be divided into three protein complexes (NADH-Q reductase (1), cytochrome reductase (3), and cytochrome oxidase (5)) that pump protons from the matrix to the intermembrane space, and two mobile carriers (ubiquinone (2) and cytochrome c (4)) that transfer electrons between the three proton-pumping complexes. (Gold numbers refer to the labels on each protein in Figure 9, below.) Because electrons move from one carrier to another until they are finally transferred to O2, the electron carriers (shown in Figure 9,below) are said to form an electron-transport chain.
Figure 9, below, is a schematic representation of the proteins involved in oxidative phosphorylation. To see an animation of oxidative phosphorylation, click on "View the Movie."
Click here for a brief description of each of the electron carriers in the electron-transport chain. It is important to note that, although NADH donates two electrons and O2 ultimately accepts four electrons, each of the carriers can only transfer one electron at a time. Hence, there are several points along the chain where electrons can be collected and dispersed. For the sake of simplicity, these points are not described in this tutorial.
In the section above, we see that the oxidation-reduction process is a series of electron transfers that occurs spontaneously and produces a proton gradient. Why are the electron tranfers from one electron carrier to the next spontaneous?
What causes electrons to be transferred down the electron-transport chain?
As seen in Table 2, below, and Figure 7a, in these carriers, the species being oxidized or reduced is Fe, which is found either in a iron-sulfur (Fe-S) group or in a heme group. (Recall the heme group from the Chem 151 tutorial " Hemoglobin and the Heme Group: Metal Complexes in the Blood".) The iron in these groups is alternately oxidized and reduced between Fe(II) (reduced) or Fe(III) (oxidized) states.
Table 2 shows that the electrons are transferred through the electron-transport chain because of the difference in the reduction potential of the electron carriers. As explained in the green box below, the higher the electrical potential (e) of a reduction half reaction is, the greater the tendency is for the species to accept an electron. Hence, in the electron-transport chain, electrons are transferred spontaneously from carriers whose reduction results in a small electrical potential change to carriers whose reduction results in an increasingly larger electrical potential change.
Just as in the box above, the electrical potential for the overall reaction (electron transfer) between two electron carriers is the sum of the potentials for the two half reactions. As long as the potential for the overall reaction is positive the reaction is spontaneous. Hence, from Table 2 below, we see that cytochrome c1 (part of the cytochrome reductase complex, #3 in Figure 9) can spontaneously transfer an electron to cytochrome c (#4 in Figure 9). The net reaction is given by Equation 16, below.
We can also see from Table 2 that cytochrome c1 cannot spontaneously transfer an electron to cytochrome b (Equation 19):
Table 2 lists the reduction potentials for each of the cytochrome proteins (i.e., the last three steps in the electron-transport chain before the electrons are accepted by O2) involved in the electron-transport chain. Note that each electron transfer is to a cytochrome with a higher reduction potential than the previous cytochrome. As described in the box above and seen in Equations 14-19, an increase in potential leads to a decrease in ΔG (Equation 13), and thus the transfer of electrons through the chain is spontaneous.
Hence, the electron-transport chain (which works because of the difference in reduction potentials) leads to a large concentration gradient for H +. As we shall see below, this huge concentration gradient leads to the production of ATP.
Questions on Electron Carriers: Steps in the Electron-Transport Chain; Reduction Potentials and Relationship to Free Energy
ATP Synthetase: Production of ATP
We have seen that the electron-transport chain generates a large proton gradient across the inner mitochondrial membrane. But recall that the ultimate goal of oxidative phosphorylation is to generate ATP to supply readily-available free energy for the body. How does this occur? In addition to the electron-carrier proteins embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane, a special protein called ATP synthetase (Figure 9, the red-colored protein) is also embedded in this membrane. ATP synthetase uses the proton gradient created by the electron-transport chain to drive the phosphorylation reaction that generates ATP (Figure 7c).
ATP synthetase is a protein consisting of two important segments: a transmembrane proton channel, and a catalytic component located inside the matrix. The proton-channel segment allows H+ ions to diffuse from the intermembrane space, where the concentration is high, to the matrix, where the concentration is low. Recall from the Kidney Dialysis tutorial that particles spontaneously diffuse from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration. Thus, since the diffusion of protons through the channel component of ATP synthetase is spontaneous, this process is accompanied by a negative change in free energy (i.e., free energy is released). The catalytic component of ATP synthetase has a site where ADP can enter. Then, using the free energy released by the spontaneous diffusion of protons through the channel segment, a bond is formed between the ADP and a free phosphate group, creating an ATP molecule. The ATP is then released from the reaction site, and a new ADP molecule can enter in order to be phosphorylated.
Questions on ATP Synthetase: Production of ATP
In this tutorial, we have learned that the ability of the body to perform daily activities is dependent on thermodynamic, equilibrium, and electrochemical concepts. These activities, which are typically based on nonspontaneous chemical reactions, are performed by using free-energy currency. The common free-energy currency is ATP, which is a molecule that easily dephosphorylates (loses a phosphate group) and releases a large amount of free energy. In the body, the nonspontaneous reactions are coupled to this very spontaneous dephosphorylation reaction, thereby making the overall reaction spontaneous (ΔG < 0). As the coupled reactions occur (i.e., as the body performs daily activities), ATP is consumed and the body regenerates ATP by using energy from the food we eat (Figure 3). As seen in Figure 4, the breakdown of glucose (glycolysis) obtained from the food we eat cannot by itself generate the large amount of ATP that is needed for metabolic energy by the body. However, glycolysis and the subsequent step, the citric-acid cycle, produce two easily oxidized molecules: NADH and FADH2. These redox molecules are used in an oxidative-phosphorylation process to produce the majority of the ATP that the body uses. This oxidative-phosphorylation process consists of two steps: the oxidation of NADH (or FADH2) and the phosphorylation reaction which regenerates ATP. Oxidative phosphorylation occurs in the mitochondria, and the two reactions (oxidation of NADH or FADH2 and phosphorylation to generate ATP) are coupled by a proton gradient across the inner membrane of the mitochondria (Figure 9). As seen in Figures 7 and 9, the oxidation of NADH occurs by electron transport through a series of protein complexes located in the inner membrane of the mitochondria. This electron transport is very spontaneous and creates the proton gradient that is necessary to then drive the phosphorylation reaction that generates the ATP. Hence, oxidative-phosphorylation demonstrates that free energy can be easily transferred by proton gradients. Oxidative-phosphorylation is the primary means of generating free-energy currency for aerobic organisms, and as such is one of the most important subjects in the study of bioenergetics (the study of energy and its chemical changes in the biological world).
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The authors thank Dewey Holten (Washington University in St. Louis) for many helpful suggestions in the writing of this tutorial.
The development of this tutorial was supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, through the Undergraduate Biological Sciences Education program, Grant HHMI# 71199-502008 to Washington University.
Copyright 1999, Washington University, All Rights Reserved.
This page was updated 7/13/2011 (G Noelken)