A substance that helps a chemical reaction to occur is a catalyst, and the special molecules that catalyze biochemical reactions are called enzymes. Almost all enzymes are proteins, made up of chains of amino acids, and they perform the critical task of lowering the activation energies of chemical reactions inside the cell. Enzymes do this by binding to the reactant molecules, and holding them in such a way as to make the chemical bond-breaking and bond-forming processes take place more readily. It is important to remember that enzymes don’t change the ∆G of a reaction. In other words, they don’t change whether a reaction is exergonic (spontaneous) or endergonic. This is because they don’t change the free energy of the reactants or products. They only reduce the activation energy required to reach the transition state.
Thermodynamics refers to the study of energy and energy transfer involving physical matter. The matter and its environment relevant to a particular case of energy transfer are classified as a system, and everything outside of that system is called the surroundings. For instance, when heating a pot of water on the stove, the system includes the stove, the pot, and the water. Energy is transferred within the system (between the stove, pot, and water). There are two types of systems: open and closed. An open system is one in which energy can be transferred between the system and its surroundings. The stovetop system is open because heat can be lost into the air. A closed system is one that cannot transfer energy to its surroundings.
Energy is defined as the ability to do work. As you’ve learned, energy exists in different forms. For example, electrical energy, light energy, and heat energy are all different types of energy. While these are all familiar types of energy that one can see or feel, there is another type of energy that is much less tangible. This energy is associated with something as simple as an object held above the ground. In order to appreciate the way energy flows into and out of biological systems, it is important to understand more about the different types of energy that exist in the physical world.
Adenosine triphosphate or ATP is the energy “currency” or carrier of the cell. When cells require an input of energy, they use ATP. An ATP nucleotide molecule consists of a five-carbon sugar, the nitrogenous base adenine, and three phosphate groups. (Do not confuse ATP with the nucleotides of DNA and RNA, although they have structural similarities.) The bonds that connect the phosphate have high-energy content, and the energy released from the hydrolysis of ATP to ADP + Pi (Adenosine Diphosphate + Pyrophosphate) is used to perform cellular work, such as contracting a muscle or pumping a solute across a cell membrane in active transport. Cells use ATP by coupling the exergonic reaction of ATP hydrolysis with endergonic reactions, with ATP donating its phosphate group to another molecule via a process called phosphorylation. The phosphorylated molecule is at a higher energy state and is less stable than its unphosphorylated form and free energy is released to substrates to perform work during this process. Phosphorylation is an example of energy transfer between molecules.
Scientists use the term bioenergetics to discuss the concept of energy flow through living systems, such as cells. Cellular processes such as the building and breaking down of complex molecules occur through stepwise chemical reactions. Some of these chemical reactions are spontaneous and release energy, whereas others require energy to proceed. Just as living things must continually consume food to replenish what has been used, cells must continually produce more energy to replenish that used by the many energy-requiring chemical reactions that constantly take place. All of the chemical reactions that take place inside cells, including those that use energy and those that release energy, are the cell’s metabolism.
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