Electron transport chain

An electron transport chain associates electron carriers (such as NADH and FADH2) and mediating biochemical reactions that produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency of life. Only two sources of energy are available to living organisms: oxidation-reduction (redox) reactions and sunlight (used for photosynthesis). Organisms that use redox reactions to produce ATP are called chemotrophs. Organisms that use sunlight are called phototrophs. Both chemotrophs and phototrophs use electron transport chains to convert energy into ATP. This is achieved through a three-step process:

  • Gradually sap energy from high-energy electrons in a series of individual steps
  • Use that energy to forcibly unbalance the proton concentration across the membrane, creating an electrochemical gradient
  • Use the energy released by the drive to rebalance the proton distribution as a means of producing ATP.

The Electron Transport Chain is also called the ETC. ATP is made by an enzyme called ATP synthase. The structure of this enzyme and its underlying genetic code is remarkably conserved in all known forms of life.

ATP synthase is powered by a transmembrane electrochemical potential gradient, usually in the form of a proton gradient. The function of the electron transport chain is to produce this gradient. In all living organisms, a series of redox reactions is used to produce a transmembrane electrochemical potential gradient.

Redox reactions are chemical reactions in which electrons are transferred from a donor molecule to an acceptor molecule. The underlying force driving these reactions is the Gibbs free energy of the reactants and products. The Gibbs free energy is the energy available ("free") to do work. Any reaction that decreases the overall Gibbs free energy of a system will proceed spontaneously.

The transfer of electrons from a high-energy molecule (the donor) to a lower-energy molecule (the acceptor) can be spatially separated into a series of intermediate redox reactions. This is an electron transport chain.

The fact that a reaction is thermodynamically possible does not mean that it will actually occur; for example, a mixture of hydrogen gas and oxygen gas does not spontaneously ignite. It is necessary either to supply an activation energy or to lower the intrinsic activation energy of the system, in order to make most biochemical reactions proceed at a useful rate. Living systems use complex macromolecular structures (enzymes) to lower the activation energies of biochemical reactions.

It is possible to couple a thermodynamically favorable reaction (a transition from a high-energy state to a lower-energy state) to a thermodynamically unfavorable reaction (such as a separation of charges, or the creation of an osmotic gradient), in such a way that the overall free energy of the system decreases (making it thermodynamically possible), while useful work is done at the same time. Biological macromolecules that catalyze a thermodynamically unfavorable reaction if and only if a thermodynamically favorable reaction occurs simultaneously underlie all known forms of life.

Electron transport chains capture energy in the form of a transmembrane electrochemical potential gradient. This energy can then be harnessed to do useful work. The gradient can be used to transport molecules across membranes. It can be used to do mechanical work, such as rotating bacterial flagella. It can be used to produce ATP high-energy molecules that are necessary for growth.

A small amount of ATP is available from substrate-level phosphorylation (for example, in glycolysis). Some organisms can obtain ATP exclusively by fermentation. In most organisms, however, the majority of ATP is generated by electron transport chains.

Electron transport chains in mitochondria
The cells of all eukaryotes (all animals, plants, fungi, algae, protozoa – in other words, all living things except bacteria and archaea) contain intracellular organelles called mitochondria, which produce ATP. Energy sources such as glucose are initially metabolized in the cytoplasm. The products are imported into mitochondria. Mitochondria continue the process of catabolism using metabolic pathways including the Krebs cycle, fatty acid oxidation, and amino acid oxidation.

The end result of these pathways is the production of two kinds of energy-rich electron donors, NADH and FADH2. Electrons from these donors are passed through an electron transport chain to oxygen, which is reduced to water. This is a multi-step redox process that occurs on the mitochondrial inner membrane. The enzymes that catalyze these reactions have the remarkable ability to simultaneously create a proton gradient across the membrane, producing a thermodynamically unlikely high-energy state with the potential to do work. Although electron transport occurs with great efficiency, a small percentage of electrons are prematurely leaked to oxygen, resulting in the formation of the toxic free-radical superoxide.

The similarity between intracellular mitochondria and free-living bacteria is striking. The known structural, functional, and DNA similarities between mitochondria and bacteria provide strong evidence that mitochondria evolved from intracellular prokaryotic symbionts that took up residence in primitive eukaryotic cells.

Four membrane-bound complexes have been identified in mitochondria. Each is an extremely complex transmembrane structure that is embedded in the inner membrane. Three of them are proton pumps. The structures are electrically connected by lipid-soluble electron carriers and water-soluble electron carriers. The overall electron transport chain

Complex I

Complex I (NADH dehydrogenase, also called NADH:ubiquinone oxidoreductase; EC removes two electrons from NADH and transfers them to a lipid-soluble carrier, ubiquinone (Q). The reduced product, ubiquinol (QH2) is free to diffuse within the membrane. At the same time, Complex I moves four protons (H+) across the membrane, producing a proton gradient. Complex I is one of the main sites at which premature electron leakage to oxygen occurs, thus being one of main sites of production of a harmful free radical called superoxide.

The pathway of electrons occurs as follows:

NADH is oxidized to NAD+, reducing Flavin mononucleotide to FMNH2 in one two-electron step. The next electron carrier is a Fe-S cluster, which can only accept one electron at a time to reduce the ferric ion into a ferrous ion. In a convenient manner, FMNH2 can be oxidized in only two one-electron steps, through a semiquinone intermediate. The electron thus travels from the FMNH2 to the Fe-S cluster, then from the Fe-S cluster to the oxidized Q to give the free-radical (semiquinone) form of Q. This happens again to reduce the semiquinone form to the ubiquinol form, QH2. During this process, four protons are translocated across the inner mitochondrial membrane, from the matrix to the intermembrane space. This creates a proton gradient that will be later used to generate ATP through oxidative phosphorylation.

Complex II

Complex II (succinate dehydrogenase; EC is not a proton pump. It serves to funnel additional electrons into the quinone pool (Q) by removing electrons from succinate and transferring them (via FAD) to Q. Complex II consists of four protein subunits: SDHA,SDHB,SDHC, and SDHD. Other electron donors (e.g., fatty acids and glycerol 3-phosphate) also funnel electrons into Q (via FAD), again without producing a proton gradient.

Complex III

Complex III (cytochrome bc1 complex; EC removes in a stepwise fashion two electrons from QH2 and transfers them to two molecules of cytochrome c, a water-soluble electron carrier located within the intermembrane space. At the same time, it moves two protons across the membrane, producing a proton gradient (in total 4 protons: 2 protons are translocated and 2 protons are released from ubiquinol). When electron transfer is hindered (by a high membrane potential, point mutations or respiratory inhibitors such as antimycin A), Complex III may leak electrons to oxygen resulting in the formation of superoxide, a highly-toxic species, which is thought to contribute to the pathology of a number of diseases, including aging.

Complex IV

Complex IV (cytochrome c oxidase; EC removes four electrons from four molecules of cytochrome c and transfers them to molecular oxygen (O2), producing two molecules of water (H2O). At the same time, it moves four protons across the membrane, producing a proton gradient.

Coupling with oxidative phosphorylation

The chemiosmotic coupling hypothesis, as proposed by Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Peter D. Mitchell, explains that the electron transport chain and oxidative phosphorylation are coupled by a proton gradient across the inner mitochondrial membrane. The efflux of protons creates both a pH gradient and an electrochemical gradient. This proton gradient is used by the FOF1 ATP synthase complex to make ATP via oxidative phosphorylation. ATP synthase is sometimes regarded as complex V of the electron transport chain. The FO component of ATP synthase acts as an ion channel for return of protons back to mitochondrial matrix. During their return, the free energy produced during the generation of the oxidized forms of the electron carriers (NAD+ and FAD) is released. This energy is used to drive ATP synthesis, catalyzed by the F1 component of the complex.
Coupling with oxidative phosphorylation is a key step for ATP production. However, in certain cases, uncoupling may be biologically useful. The inner mitochondrial membrane of brown adipose tissue contains a large amount of thermogenin (an uncoupling protein), which acts as uncoupler by forming an alternative pathway for the flow of protons back to matrix. This results in consumption of energy in thermogenesis rather than ATP production. This may be useful in cases when heat production is required, for example in colds or during arise of hibernating animals. Synthetic uncouplers (e.g., 2,4-dinitrophenol) also exist, and, at high doses, are lethal.

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