An ATP synthase (EC is a general term for an enzyme that can synthesize adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and inorganic phosphate by utilizing some form of energy.

The overall reaction sequence is:
ADP + Pi → ATP

Molecular model of ATP synthase by X-ray diffraction method

ATP synthase in E. coli

These enzymes are of crucial importance in almost all organisms, because ATP is the common "energy currency" of cells.


In mitochondria, the F1FO ATP synthase has a long history of scientific study. The F1 portion of the ATP synthase is above the membrane, the FO portion is within the membrane. It's easy to visualize the FOF1 particle as resembling the fruiting body of a common mushroom, with the head being the F1 particle, the stalk being the gamma subunit of F1, and the base and "roots" being the FO particle embedded in the membrane. The F1 particle was first isolated by Ephraim Racker in 1961. The nomenclature of the enzyme suffers from a long history. The F1 fraction derives it name from the term "Fraction 1" and FO (written as a subscript "O", not "zero") derives it name from being the oligomycine binding fraction. Taking as an example the nomenclature of subunits in the bovine enzyme, many subunits have Greek and Roman alphabet names (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon and a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h), while others have more complex names such as F6 (from "Fraction 6"), OSCP (the oligomycin sensitivity conferral protein), A6L (named for the gene that codes for it in the mitochondrial genome) and IF1 (inhibitory factor 1).

The F1 particle is large and can be seen in the transmission electron microscope by negative staining (1962, Fernandez-Moran et al., Journal of Molecular Biology, Vol 22, p 63). These are particles of 9 nm diameter that pepper the inner mitochondrial membrane. They were originally called elementary particles and were thought to contain the entire respiratory apparatus of the mitochondrion, but through a long series of experiments, Ephraim Racker and his colleagues were able to show that this particle is correlated with ATPase activity in uncoupled mitochondria and with the ATPase activity in submitochondrial particles created by exposing mitochondria to ultrasound. This ATPase activity was further associated with the creation of ATP by yet another long series of experiments in many laboratories.

Binding change mechanism

In the 1960s through the 1970s, Paul Boyer developed his binding change, or flip-flop, mechanism, which postulated that ATP synthesis is coupled with a conformational change in the ATP synthase generated by rotation of the gamma subunit. The research group of John E. Walker, then at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge but now at the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit (also in Cambridge) crystallized the F1 catalytic-domain of ATP synthase. The structure, at the time the largest asymmetric protein structure known, indicated that Boyer's rotary-catalysis model was essentially correct. For elucidating this Boyer and Walker shared half of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Jens Christian Skou received the other half of the Chemistry prize that year "for the first discovery of an ion-transporting enzyme, Na+, K+ -ATPase"

The crystal structure of the F1 showed alternating alpha and beta subunits (3 of each), arranged like segments of an orange around an asymmetrical gamma subunit. According to the current model of ATP synthesis (known as the alternating catalytic model), the proton-motive force across the inner mitochondrial membrane, generated by the electron transport chain, drives the passage of protons through the membrane via the FO region of ATP synthase. A portion of the FO (the ring of c-subunits) rotates as the protons pass through the membrane. The c-ring is tightly attached to the asymmetric central stalk (consisting primarily of the gamma subunit) which rotates within the alpha3beta3 of F1 causing the 3 catalytic nucleotide binding sites to go through a series of conformational changes that leads to ATP synthesis. The major F1 subunits are prevented from rotating in sympathy with the central stalk rotor by a peripheral stalk that joins the alpha3beta3 to the non-rotating portion of FO. The structure of the intact ATP synthase is currently known at low-resolution from electron cryo-microscopy (cryo-EM) studies of the complex. The cryo-EM model of ATP synthase shows that the peripheral stalk is a flexible rope-like structure that wraps around the complex as it joins F1 to FO. Under the right conditions, the enzyme reaction can also be carried out in reverse, with ATP hydrolysis driving proton pumping across the membrane.

Physiological role

Like other enzymes, the activity of F1FO ATP synthase is reversible. Large enough quantities of ATP cause it to create a transmembrane proton gradient, this is used by fermenting bacteria which do not have an electron transport chain, and hydrolyze ATP to make a proton gradient, which they use for flagella and transport of nutrients into the cell.

In respiring bacteria under physiological conditions, ATP synthase generally runs in the opposite direction, creating ATP while using the protonmotive force created by the electron transport chain as a source of energy. The overall process of creating energy in this fashion is termed oxidative phosphorylation. The same process takes place in mitochondria, where ATP synthase is located in the inner mitochondrial membrane

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