Structural Biochemistry/Cells Transforming Energy

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Cells Turn Nutrients into Usable Energy[edit]

Cells manage a wide range of functions in their tiny package — growing, moving, housekeeping, and so on — and most of those functions require energy. Cellular nutrients come in many forms, including sugars and fats. In order to provide a cell with energy, these molecules have to pass across the cell membrane, which functions as a barrier — but not an impassable one. Like the exterior walls of a house, the plasma membrane is semi-permeable. In much the same way that doors and windows allow necessities to enter the house, various proteins that span the cell membrane permit specific molecules into the cell, although they may require some energy input to accomplish this task.

Complex organic food molecules such as sugars, fats, and proteins are rich sources of energy for cells because much of the energy used to form these molecules is literally stored within the chemical bonds that hold them together. Scientists can measure the amount of energy stored in foods using a device called a bomb calorimeter. With this technique, food is placed inside the calorimeter and heated until it burns. The excess heat released by the reaction is directly proportional to the amount of energy contained in the food.

In reality, of course, cells don't work quite like calorimeters. Rather than burning all their energy in one large reaction, cells release the energy stored in their food molecules through a series of oxidation reactions. Oxidation describes a type of chemical reaction in which electrons are transferred from one molecule to another, changing the composition and energy content of both the donor and acceptor molecules. Food molecules act as electron donors. During each oxidation reaction involved in food breakdown, the product of the reaction has a lower energy content than the donor molecule that preceded it in the pathway. At the same time, electron acceptor molecules capture some of the energy lost from the food molecule during each oxidation reaction and store it for later use. Eventually, when the carbon atoms from a complex organic food molecule are fully oxidized at the end of the reaction chain, they are released as waste in the form of carbon dioxide.

Cells do not use the energy from oxidation reactions as soon as it is released. Instead, they convert it into small, energy-rich molecules such as ATP and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NADH), which can be used throughout the cell to power metabolism and construct new cellular components. In addition, workhorse proteins called enzymes use this chemical energy to catalyze, or accelerate, chemical reactions within the cell that would otherwise proceed very slowly. Enzymes do not force a reaction to proceed if it wouldn't do so without the catalyst; rather, they simply lower the energy barrier required for the reaction to begin.