6.1 Energy and Metabolism
Cells perform the functions of life through various chemical reactions. A cell’s metabolism refers to the chemical reactions that take place within it. There are metabolic reactions that involve breaking down complex chemicals into simpler ones, such as breaking down large macromolecules. Scientists refer to this process as catabolism, and we associate such reactions an energy release. On the other end of the spectrum, anabolism refers to metabolic processes that build complex molecules out of simpler ones, such as macromolecule synthesis. Anabolic processes require energy. Glucose synthesis and glucose breakdown are examples of anabolic and catabolic pathways, respectively.
6.2 Potential, Kinetic, Free, and Activation Energy
Energy comes in many different forms. Objects in motion do physical work, and kinetic energy is the energy of objects in motion. Objects that are not in motion may have the potential to do work, and thus have potential energy. Molecules also have potential energy because breaking molecular bonds has the potential to release energy. Living cells depend on harvesting potential energy from molecular bonds to perform work. Free energy is a measure of energy that is available to do work. A system’s free energy changes during energy transfers such as chemical reactions, and scientists refer to this change as ∆G.
A reaction’s ∆G can be negative or positive, meaning that the reaction releases energy or consumes energy, respectively. A reaction with a negative ∆G that gives off energy is an exergonic reaction. One with a positive ∆G that requires energy input is an endergonic reaction. Exergonic reactions are spontaneous because their products have less energy than their reactants. Endergonic reactions’ products have a higher energy state than the reactants, and so these are nonspontaneous reactions. However, all reactions (including spontaneous -∆G reactions) require an initial energy input in order to reach the transition state, at which they will proceed. This initial input of energy is the activation energy.
6.3 The Laws of Thermodynamics
In studying energy, scientists use the term “system” to refer to the matter and its environment involved in energy transfers. Everything outside of the system is the surroundings. Single cells are biological systems. We can think of systems as having a certain amount of order. It takes energy to make a system more ordered. The more ordered a system, the lower its entropy. Entropy is a measure of a system’s disorder. As a system becomes more disordered, the lower its energy and the higher its entropy.
The laws of thermodynamics are a series of laws that describe the properties and processes of energy transfer. The first law states that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant. This means that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or transformed. The second law of thermodynamics states that every energy transfer involves some loss of energy in an unusable form, such as heat energy, resulting in a more disordered system. In other words, no energy transfer is completely efficient, and all transfers trend toward disorder.
6.4 ATP: Adenosine Triphosphate
ATP is the primary energy-supplying molecule for living cells. ATP is comprised of a nucleotide, a five-carbon sugar, and three phosphate groups. The bonds that connect the phosphates (phosphoanhydride bonds) have high-energy content. The energy released from ATP hydrolysis into ADP + Pi performs cellular work. Cells use ATP to perform work by coupling ATP hydrolysis’ exergonic reaction with endergonic reactions. ATP donates its phosphate group to another molecule via phosphorylation. The phosphorylated molecule is at a higher-energy state and is less stable than its unphosphorylated form, and this added energy from phosphate allows the molecule to undergo its endergonic reaction.
Enzymes are chemical catalysts that accelerate chemical reactions at physiological temperatures by lowering their activation energy. Enzymes are usually proteins consisting of one or more polypeptide chains. Enzymes have an active site that provides a unique chemical environment, comprised of certain amino acid R groups (residues). This unique environment is perfectly suited to convert particular chemical reactants for that enzyme, which scientists call substrates, into unstable intermediates that they call transition states. Enzymes and substrates bind with an induced fit, which means that enzymes undergo slight conformational adjustments upon substrate contact, leading to full, optimal binding. Enzymes bind to substrates and catalyze reactions in four different ways: bringing substrates together in an optimal orientation, compromising the bond structures of substrates so that bonds can break down more easily, providing optimal environmental conditions for a reaction to occur, or participating directly in their chemical reaction by forming transient covalent bonds with the substrates.
Enzyme action must be regulated so that in a given cell at a given time, the desired reactions catalyze and the undesired reactions are not. Enzymes are regulated by cellular conditions, such as temperature and pH. They are also regulated through their location within a cell, sometimes compartmentalized so that they can only catalyze reactions under certain circumstances. Enzyme inhibition and activation via other molecules are other important ways that enzymes are regulated. Inhibitors can act competitively, noncompetitively, or allosterically. Noncompetitive inhibitors are usually allosteric. Activators can also enhance enzyme function allosterically. The most common method by which cells regulate the enzymes in metabolic pathways is through feedback inhibition. During feedback inhibition, metabolic pathway products serve as inhibitors (usually allosteric) of one or more of the enzymes (usually the first committed enzyme of the pathway) involved in the pathway that produces them.