Aerobic Respiration, Part 3: Oxidative Phosphorylation

You have just read about two pathways in glucose catabolism—glycolysis and the citric acid cycle—that generate ATP. Most of the ATP generated during the aerobic catabolism of glucose, however, is not generated directly from these pathways. Rather, it derives from a process that begins with passing electrons through a series of chemical reactions to a final electron acceptor, oxygen. This is the only place in aerobic respiration where O2 is actually required. These reactions take place in specialized protein complexes located in the inner membrane of the mitochondria of eukaryotic organisms and on the inner part of the cell membrane of prokaryotic organisms. The energy of the electrons is used to generate ATP. The entirety of this process is called oxidative phosphorylation.

During oxidative phosphorylation:

  • The energy from NADH and FADH2 is used up.
  • Oxygen gas is converted into water.
  • 30-36 ATP are recharged from ADP

Electron Transport Chain

The electron transport chain (Figure 1) is the last component of aerobic respiration and is the only part of metabolism that uses atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen continuously diffuses into plants for this purpose. In animals, oxygen enters the body through the respiratory system. Electron transport is a series of chemical reactions that resembles a bucket brigade in that electrons are passed rapidly from one component to the next, to the endpoint of the chain where oxygen is the final electron acceptor and water is produced. There are four complexes composed of proteins, labeled I through IV in Figure 1, and the aggregation of these four complexes, together with associated mobile, accessory electron carriers, is called the electron transport chain. The electron transport chain is present in multiple copies in the inner mitochondrial membrane of eukaryotes and in the plasma membrane of prokaryotes. In each transfer of an electron through the electron transport chain, the electron loses energy, but with some transfers, the energy is stored as potential energy by using it to pump hydrogen ions (H+, protons) across the inner mitochondrial membrane into the intermembrane space, creating an electrochemical gradient. An electrochemical gradient consists of two parts: a difference in solute concentration across the membrane combined with a difference in charge across the membrane. Here, the electrochemical gradient is made up of a higher concentration of H+ in the inner membrane space compared to the mitochondrial matrix.

proteins in the electron transport chain
Figure 1 The electron transport chain is a series of electron transporters embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane that shuttles electrons from NADH and FADH2 to molecular oxygen. In the process, protons are pumped from the mitochondrial matrix to the intermembrane space, and oxygen is reduced to form water.

Electrons from NADH and FADH2 are passed to protein complexes in the electron transport chain. As they are passed from one complex to another (there are a total of four), the electrons lose energy, and some of that energy is used to pump hydrogen ions from the mitochondrial matrix into the intermembrane space. In the fourth protein complex, the electrons are accepted by oxygen, the terminal acceptor. The oxygen with its extra electrons then combines with two hydrogen ions, further enhancing the electrochemical gradient, to form water. If there were no oxygen present in the mitochondrion, the electrons could not be removed from the system, and the entire electron transport chain would back up and stop. The mitochondria would be unable to generate new ATP in this way, and the cell would ultimately die from lack of energy. This is the reason we must breathe to draw in new oxygen. This is the only place where oxygen is required during the processes of aerobic respiration.

In the electron transport chain, the free energy from the series of reactions just described is used to pump hydrogen ions across the membrane. The uneven distribution of H+ ions across the membrane establishes an electrochemical gradient, owing to the H+ ions’ positive charge and their higher concentration on one side of the membrane.

Hydrogen ions diffuse from the intermembrane space through the inner membrane into the mitochondrial matrix through an integral membrane protein called ATP synthase (Figure 2). This complex protein acts as a tiny generator, turned by the force of the hydrogen ions diffusing through it, down their electrochemical gradient from the intermembrane space, where there are many mutually repelling hydrogen ions to the matrix, where there are few. The turning of the parts of this molecular machine regenerate ATP from ADP. This flow of hydrogen ions across the membrane through ATP synthase is called chemiosmosis.

ATP Synthase
Figure 2 ATP synthase is a complex, molecular machine that uses a proton (H+) gradient to form ATP from ADP and inorganic phosphate (Pi). (Credit: modification of work by Klaus Hoffmeier)

Chemiosmosis (Figure 2) is used to generate 90 percent of the ATP made during aerobic glucose catabolism. The result of the reactions is the production of ATP from the energy of the electrons removed from hydrogen atoms. These atoms were originally part of a glucose molecule. At the end of the electron transport system, the electrons are used to reduce an oxygen molecule to oxygen ions. The extra electrons on the oxygen ions attract hydrogen ions (protons) from the surrounding medium, and water is formed. The electron transport chain and the production of ATP through chemiosmosis are collectively called oxidative phosphorylation (Figure 3).

oxidative phosphorylation
Figure 3 In oxidative phosphorylation, the pH gradient formed by the electron transport chain is used by ATP synthase to form ATP.

ATP Yield

The number of ATP molecules generated from the catabolism of glucose varies. For example, the number of hydrogen ions that the electron transport chain complexes can pump through the membrane varies between species. Another source of variance stems from the shuttle of electrons across the membranes of the mitochondria because the NADH generated from glycolysis cannot easily enter mitochondria. Thus, electrons are picked up on the inside of mitochondria by either NAD+ or FAD+. As you have learned earlier, these FAD+molecules can transport fewer ions; consequently, fewer ATP molecules are generated when FAD+ acts as a carrier. NAD+ is used as the electron transporter in the liver and FAD+ acts in the brain.

Another factor that affects the yield of ATP molecules generated from glucose is the fact that intermediate compounds in these pathways are used for other purposes. Glucose catabolism connects with the pathways that build or break down all other biochemical compounds in cells, and the result is somewhat messier than the ideal situations described thus far. For example, sugars other than glucose are fed into the glycolytic pathway for energy extraction. Moreover, the five-carbon sugars that form nucleic acids are made from intermediates in glycolysis. Certain nonessential amino acids can be made from intermediates of both glycolysis and the citric acid cycle. Lipids, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, are also made from intermediates in these pathways, and both amino acids and triglycerides are broken down for energy through these pathways. Overall, in living systems, these pathways of glucose catabolism extract about 34 percent of the energy contained in glucose.

Section Summary

The electron transport chain is the portion of aerobic respiration that uses free oxygen as the final electron acceptor of the electrons removed from the intermediate compounds in glucose catabolism. The electron transport chain is composed of four large, multiprotein complexes embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane and two small diffusible electron carriers shuttling electrons between them. The electrons are passed through a series of reactions, with a small amount of free energy used at three points to transport hydrogen ions across a membrane. This process contributes to the gradient used in chemiosmosis. The electrons passing through the electron transport chain gradually lose energy until eventually they are donated to oxygen gas which accepts two protons (H+) and is converted into water. The end products of the electron transport chain are water and roughly 30-34 molecules of ATP. A number of intermediate compounds of the citric acid cycle can be diverted into the anabolism of other biochemical molecules, such as nonessential amino acids, sugars, and lipids. These same molecules can serve as energy sources for the glucose pathways.


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Principles of Biology by Lisa Bartee, Walter Shriner, and Catherine Creech is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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