During oxidative phosphorylation, electrons are transferred from electron donors to electron acceptors such as oxygen, in redox reactions. These redox reactions release energy, which is used to form ATP. In eukaryotes, these redox reactions are carried out by a series of protein complexes within mitochondria, whereas in prokaryotes, these proteins are located in the cells' inner membranes. These linked sets of enzymes are called electron transport chains. In eukaryotes, five main protein complexes are involved, whereas in prokaryotes many different enzymes are present, using a variety of electron donors and acceptors.
The energy released as electrons flow through this electron transport chain is used to transport protons across the inner mitochondrial membrane, in a process called chemiosmosis. This generates potential energy in the form of a pH gradient and an electrical potential across this membrane. This store of energy is tapped by allowing protons to flow back across the membrane and down this gradient, through a large enzyme called ATP synthase. This enzyme uses this energy to generate ATP from adenosine diphosphate (ADP), in a phosphorylation reaction. Unusually, the ATP synthase is driven by the proton flow which forces the rotation of a part of the enzyme—it is a rotary mechanical motor.
Although oxidative phosphorylation is a vital part of metabolism, it produces reactive oxygen species such as superoxide and hydrogen peroxide that lead to propagation of free radicals, damaging cells and contributing to disease and, possibly, aging. The enzymes carrying out this metabolic pathway are also the target of many drugs and poisons that inhibit their activities.
ATP synthase releases this stored energy by completing the circuit and allowing protons to flow down the electrochemical gradient, back to the N-side of the membrane. This enzyme is like an electric motor as it uses the proton-motive force to drive the rotation of part of its structure and couples this motion to the synthesis of ATP.
The amount of energy released by oxidative phosphorylation is high, compared with the amount produced by anaerobic fermentation. Glycolysis produces only 2 ATP molecules, but somewhere between 30–36 ATPs are produced by the oxidative phosphorylation of the 10 NADH and 2 succinate molecules made by converting one molecule of glucose to carbon dioxide and water. This ATP yield is the theoretical maximum value; in practice, some protons leak across the membrane, lowering the yield of ATP.
The electron transport chain carries both protons and electrons, passing electrons from donors to acceptors, and transporting protons across a membrane. These processes use both soluble and protein-bound transfer molecules. In mitochondria, electrons are transferred within the intermembrane space by the water-soluble electron transfer protein cytochrome c. This carries only electrons, and these are transferred by the reduction and oxidation of an iron atom that the protein holds within a heme group in its structure. Cytochrome c is also found in some bacteria, where it is located within the periplasmic space.
Within the inner mitochondrial membrane, the lipid-soluble electron carrier coenzyme Q10 (Q) carries both electrons and protons by a redox cycle. This small benzoquinone molecule is very hydrophobic, so it diffuses freely within the membrane. When Q accepts two electrons and two protons, it becomes reduced to the ubiquinol form (QH2); when QH2 releases two electrons and two protons, it becomes oxidized back to the ubiquinone (Q) form. As a result, if two enzymes are arranged so that Q is reduced on one side of the membrane and QH2 oxidized on the other, ubiquinone will couple these reactions and shuttle protons across the membrane. Some bacterial electron transport chains use different quinones, such as menaquinone, in addition to ubiquinone.
Within proteins, electrons are transferred between flavin cofactors, iron–sulfur clusters, and cytochromes. There are several types of iron–sulfur cluster. The simplest kind found in the electron transfer chain consists of two iron atoms joined by two atoms of inorganic sulfur; these are called [2Fe–2S] clusters. The second kind, called [4Fe–4S], contains a cube of four iron atoms and four sulfur atoms. Each iron atom in these clusters is coordinated by an additional amino acid, usually by the sulfur atom of cysteine. Metal ion cofactors undergo redox reactions without binding or releasing protons, so in the electron transport chain they serve solely to transport electrons through proteins. Electrons move quite long distances through proteins by hopping along chains of these cofactors. This occurs by quantum tunnelling, which is rapid over distances of less than 1.4 m.
In eukaryotes, the enzymes in this electron transport system use the energy released from the oxidation of NADH to pump protons across the inner membrane of the mitochondrion. This causes protons to build up in the intermembrane space, and generates an electrochemical gradient across the membrane. The energy stored in this potential is then used by ATP synthase to produce ATP. Oxidative phosphorylation in the eukaryotic mitochondrion is the best-understood example of this process. The mitochondrion is present in almost all eukaryotes, with the exception of anaerobic protozoa such as Trichomonas vaginalis that instead reduce protons to hydrogen in a remnant mitochondrion called a hydrogenosome.
NADH-coenzyme Q oxidoreductase, also known as NADH dehydrogenase or complex I, is the first protein in the electron transport chain. Complex I is a giant enzyme with the mammalian complex I having 46 subunits and a molecular mass of about 1,000 kilodaltons (kDa). The structure is known in detail only from a bacterium; in most organisms the complex resembles a boot with a large “ball” poking out from the membrane into the mitochondrion. The genes that encode the individual proteins are contained in both the cell nucleus and the mitochondrial genome, as is the case for many enzymes present in the mitochondrion.
The reaction which is catalyzed by this enzyme is the two electron reduction by NADH of coenzyme Q10 or ubiquinone (represented as Q in the equation below), a lipid-soluble quinone that is found in the mitochondrion membrane:
The start of the reaction, and indeed of the entire electron chain, is the binding of a NADH molecule to complex I and the donation of two electrons. The electrons enter complex I via a prosthetic group attached to the complex, flavin mononucleotide (FMN). The addition of electrons to FMN converts it to its reduced form, FMNH2. The electrons are then transferred through a series of iron–sulfur clusters: the second kind of prosthetic group present in the complex. There are both [2Fe–2S] and [4Fe–4S] iron–sulfur clusters in complex I.
As the electrons pass through this complex, four protons are pumped from the matrix into the intermembrane space. Exactly how this occurs is unclear, but it seems to involve conformational changes in complex I that cause the protein to bind protons on the N-side of the membrane and then move them onto the P-side of the membrane. Finally, the electrons are transferred from the chain of iron–sulfur clusters to a ubiquinone molecule in the membrane. Reduction of ubiquinone also contributes to the generation of a proton gradient, as two protons are taken up from the matrix as it is reduced to ubiquinol (QH2).
Succinate-Q oxidoreductase, also known as complex II or succinate dehydrogenase, is a second entry point to the electron transport chain. It is unusual because it is the only enzyme that is part of both the citric acid cycle and the electron transport chain. Complex II consists of four protein subunits and contains a bound flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) cofactor, iron–sulfur clusters, and a heme group that does not participate in electron transfer to coenzyme Q, but is believed to be important in decreasing production of reactive oxygen species. It oxidizes succinate to fumarate and reduces ubiquinone. As this reaction releases less energy than the oxidation of NADH, complex II does not transport protons across the membrane and does not contribute to the proton gradient.
In some eukaryotes, such as the parasitic worm Ascaris suum, an enzyme similar to complex II, fumarate reductase (menaquinol:fumarate oxidoreductase, or QFR) operates in reverse to oxidize ubiquinol and reduce fumarate. This allows the worm to survive in the anaerobic environment of the large intestine, carrying out anaerobic oxidative phosphorylation with fumarate as the electron acceptor. Another unconventional function of complex II is seen in the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Here, the reversed action of complex II as an oxidase is important in regenerating ubiquinol, which the parasite uses in an unusual form of pyrimidine biosynthesis.
In mammals, this metabolic pathway is important in beta oxidation of fatty acids and catabolism of amino acids and choline, as it accepts electrons from multiple acetyl-CoA dehydrogenases. In plants, ETF-Q oxidoreductase is also important in the metabolic responses that allow survival in extended periods of darkness.
Q-cytochrome c oxidoreductase is also known as cytochrome c reductase, cytochrome bc1 complex, or simply complex III. In mammals, this enzyme is a dimer, with each subunit complex containing 11 protein subunits, an [2Fe-2S] iron–sulfur cluster and three cytochromes; one cytochrome c1 and two b cytochromes. A cytochrome is a kind of electron-transferring protein that contains at least one heme group. The iron atoms inside complex III’s heme groups alternate between a reduced ferrous (+2) and oxidized ferric (+3) state as the electrons are transferred through the protein.
The reaction catalyzed by complex III is the oxidation of one molecule of ubiquinol and the reduction of two molecules of cytochrome c, a heme protein loosely associated with the mitochondrion. Unlike coenzyme Q, which carries two electrons, cytochrome c carries only one electron.
As only one of the electrons can be transferred from the QH2 donor to a cytochrome c acceptor at a time, the reaction mechanism of complex III is more elaborate than those of the other respiratory complexes, and occurs in two steps called the Q cycle. In the first step, the enzyme binds three substrates, first, QH2, which is then oxidized, with one electron being passed to the second substrate, cytochrome c. The two protons released from QH2 pass into the intermembrane space. The third substrate is Q, which accepts the second electron from the QH2 and is reduced to Q.-, which is the ubisemiquinone free radical. The first two substrates are released, but this ubisemiquinone intermediate remains bound. In the second step, a second molecule of QH2 is bound and again passes its first electron to a cytochrome c acceptor. The second electron is passed to the bound ubisemiquinone, reducing it to QH2 as it gains two protons from the mitochondrial matrix. This QH2 is then released from the enzyme.
As coenzyme Q is reduced to ubiquinol on the inner side of the membrane and oxidized to ubiquinone on the other, this causes the net transfer of protons across the membrane, adding to the proton gradient. The rather complex two-step mechanism by which this occurs is important as it increases the efficiency of proton transfer. If instead of the Q cycle, one molecule of QH2 was used to directly reduce two molecules of cytochrome c, the efficiency would be halved, with only one proton transferred per cytochrome c reduced.
Cytochrome c oxidase, also known as complex IV, is the final protein complex in the electron transport chain. The mammalian enzyme has an extremely complex structure and contains 13 subunits, two heme groups, as well as multiple metal ion cofactors – in all three atoms of copper, one of magnesium and one of zinc.
This enzyme mediates the final reaction in the electron transport chain and transfers electrons to oxygen, while pumping protons across the membrane. The final electron acceptor oxygen, which is also called the terminal electron acceptor, is reduced to water in this step. Both the direct pumping of protons and the consumption of matrix protons in the reduction of oxygen contribute to the proton gradient. The reaction catalyzed is the oxidation of cytochrome c and the reduction of oxygen:
Another example of a divergent electron transport chain is the alternative oxidase, which is found in plants, as well as some fungi, protists, and possibly some animals. This enzyme transfers electrons directly from ubiquinol to oxygen.
The electron transport pathways produced by these alternative NADH and ubiquinone oxidases have lower ATP yields than the full pathway. The advantages produced by a shortened pathway are not entirely clear. However, the alternative oxidase is produced in response to stresses such as cold, reactive oxygen species and infection by pathogens, as well as other factors that inhibit the full electron transport chain. Alternative pathways might therefore enhance an organisms' resistance to injury, by reducing oxidative stress.
The main difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic oxidative phosphorylation is that bacteria and archaea use many different substances to donate or accept electrons. This allows prokaryotes to grow under a wide variety of environmental conditions. In E. coli, for example, oxidative phosphorylation can be driven by a large number of pairs of reducing agents and oxidizing agents, which are listed below. The midpoint potential of a chemical measures how much energy is released when it is oxidized or reduced, with reducing agents having negative potentials and oxidizing agents positive potentials.
|Respiratory enzyme||Redox pair||Midpoint potential (Volts)|
|Formate dehydrogenase||Bicarbonate / Formate||−0.43|
|Hydrogenase||Proton / Hydrogen||−0.42|
|NADH dehydrogenase||NAD+ / NADH||−0.32|
|Glycerol-3-phosphate dehydrogenase||DHAP / Gly-3-P||−0.19|
|Pyruvate oxidase||Acetate + Carbon dioxide / Pyruvate||?|
|Lactate dehydrogenase||Pyruvate / Lactate||−0.19|
|D-amino acid dehydrogenase||2-oxoacid + ammonia / D-amino acid||?|
|Glucose dehydrogenase||Gluconate / Glucose||−0.14|
|Succinate dehydrogenase||Fumarate / Succinate||align="center" |
|Ubiquinol oxidase||Oxygen / Water||align="center" |
|Nitrate reductase||Nitrate / Nitrite||align="center" |
|Nitrite reductase||Nitrite / Ammonia||align="center" |
|Dimethyl sulfoxide reductase||DMSO / DMS||align="center" |
|Trimethylamine N-oxide reductase||TMAO / TMA||align="center" |
|Fumarate reductase||Fumarate / Succinate||align="center" |
As shown above, E. coli can grow with reducing agents such as formate, hydrogen or lactate as electron donors, and nitrate, DMSO or oxygen as acceptors. The larger the difference in midpoint potential between an oxidizing and reducing agent, the more energy is released when they react. Out of these compounds, the succinate/fumarate pair is unusual, as its midpoint potential is close to zero. Succinate can therefore be oxidized to fumarate if a strong oxidizing agent such as oxygen is available, or fumarate can be reduced to succinate using a strong reducing agent such as formate. These alternative reactions are catalyzed by succinate dehydrogenase and fumarate reductase, respectively.
Some prokaryotes use redox pairs that have only a small difference in midpoint potential. For example, nitrifying bacteria such as Nitrobacter oxidize nitrite to nitrate, donating the electrons to oxygen. The small amount of energy released in this reaction is enough to pump protons and generate ATP, but not enough to produce NADH or NADPH directly for use in anabolism. This problem is solved by using a nitrite oxidoreductase to produce enough proton-motive force to run part of the electron transport chain in reverse, causing complex I to generate NADH.
Prokaryotes control their use of these electron donors and acceptors by varying which enzymes are produced, in response to environmental conditions. This flexibility is possible because different oxidases and reductases use the same ubiquinone pool. This allows many combinations of enzymes to function together, linked by the common ubiquinol intermediate. These respiratory chains therefore have a modular design, with easily interchangeable sets of enzyme systems.
In addition to this metabolic diversity, prokaryotes also possess a range of isozymes – different enzymes that catalyze the same reaction. For example, in E. coli there are two different types of ubiquinol oxidase using oxygen as an electron acceptor. Under highly-aerobic conditions, the cell uses an oxidase with a low affinity for oxygen that can transport two protons per electron. However, if levels of oxygen fall, they switch to an oxidase that only transfers one proton per electron, but has a high affinity for oxygen.
ATP synthase, also called complex V, is the final enzyme in the oxidative phosphorylation pathway. This enzyme is found in all forms of life and functions in the same way in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The enzyme uses the energy stored in a proton gradient across a membrane to drive the synthesis of ATP from ADP and phosphate (Pi). Estimates of the number of protons required to synthesise one ATP have ranged from three to four, with some suggesting cells can vary this ratio, to suit different conditions.
This phosphorylation reaction is an equilibrium, which can be shifted by altering the proton-motive force. In the absence of a proton-motive force, the ATP synthase reaction will run from right to left, hydrolyzing ATP and pumping protons out of the matrix across the membrane. However, when the proton-motive force is high, the reaction is forced to run in the opposite direction; it proceeds from left to right, allowing protons to flow down their concentration gradient and turning ADP into ATP. Indeed, in the closely related vacuolar type H+-ATPases the same reaction is used to acidify cellular compartments, by pumping protons and hydrolysing ATP.
ATP synthase is a massive protein complex with a mushroom-like shape. The mammalian enzyme complex contains 16 subunits and has a mass of approximately 600 kilodaltons. The portion embedded within the membrane is called FO and contains a ring of c subunits and the proton channel. The stalk and the ball-shaped headpiece is called F1 and is the site of ATP synthesis. The ball-shaped complex at the end of the F1 portion contains six proteins of two different kinds (three α subunits and three β subunits), whereas the "stalk" consists of one protein: the γ subunit, with the tip of the stalk extending into the ball of α and β subunits. Both the α and β subunits bind nucleotides, but only the β subunits catalyze the ATP synthesis reaction. Reaching along the side of the F1 portion and back into the membrane is a long rod-like subunit that anchors the α and β subunits into the base of the enzyme.
As protons cross the membrane through the channel in the base of ATP synthase this causes the FO proton-driven motor to rotate. Rotation might be caused by changes in the ionization of amino acids in the ring of c subunits causing electrostatic interactions that propel the ring of c subunits past the proton channel. This rotating ring in turn drives the rotation of the central axle (the γ subunit stalk) within the α and β subunits. The α and β subunits are prevented from rotating themselves by the side-arm, which acts as a stator. This movement of the tip of the γ subunit within the ball of α and β subunits provides the energy for the active sites in the β subunits to undergo a cycle of movements that produces and then releases ATP.
This ATP synthesis reaction is called the binding change mechanism and involves the active site of a β subunit cycling between three states. In the "open" state, ADP and phosphate enter the active site (shown in brown in the diagram). The protein then closes up around the molecules and binds them loosely – the "loose" state (shown in red). The enzyme then changes shape again and forces these molecules together, with the active site in the resulting "tight" state (shown in pink) binding the newly-produced ATP molecule with very high affinity. Finally, the active site cycles back to the open state, releasing ATP and binding more ADP and phosphate, ready for the next cycle.
In some bacteria and archaea, ATP synthesis is driven by the movement of sodium ions through the cell membrane, rather than the movement of protons. Archaea such as Methanococcus also contain the A1Ao synthase, a form of the enzyme that contains additional proteins with little similarity in sequence to other bacterial and eukaryotic ATP synthase subunits. It is possible that in some species the A1Ao form of the enzyme is a specialized sodium-driven ATP synthase, but this might not be true in all cases.
These reactive oxygen species and their reaction products, such as the hydroxyl radical, are very harmful to cells, as they oxidize proteins and cause mutations in DNA. This cellular damage might contribute to disease and is proposed as one cause of aging.
The cytochrome c oxidase complex is highly efficient at reducing oxygen to water, and it releases very few partly-reduced intermediates; however small amounts of superoxide anion and peroxide are produced by the electron transport chain. Particularly important is the reduction of coenzyme Q in complex III, as a highly reactive ubisemiquinone free radical is formed as an intermediate in the Q cycle. This unstable species can lead to electron "leakage" when electrons transfer directly to oxygen, forming superoxide.
To counteract these reactive oxygen species, cells contain numerous antioxidant systems, including antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin C and vitamin E, and antioxidant enzymes such as superoxide dismutase, catalase, and peroxidases, which detoxify the reactive species, limiting damage to the cell.
|Compounds||Use||Effect on oxidative phosphorylation|
|Poisons||Inhibit the electron transport chain by binding more strongly than oxygen to the Fe–Cu center in cytochrome c oxidase, preventing the reduction of oxygen.|
|Oligomycin||Antibiotic||Inhibits ATP synthase by blocking the flow of protons through the Fo subunit.|
|Poisons||Ionophores that disrupt the proton gradient by carrying protons across a membrane. This ionophore uncouples proton pumping from ATP synthesis because it carries protons across the inner mitochondrial membrane.|
|Rotenone||Pesticide||Prevents the transfer of electrons from complex I to ubiquinone by blocking to the ubiquinone-binding site.|
|Malonate and oxaloacetate||Competitive inhibitors of succinate dehydrogenase (complex II).|
Not all inhibitors of oxidative phosphorylation are toxins. In brown adipose tissue, regulated proton channels called uncoupling proteins can uncouple respiration from ATP synthesis. This rapid respiration produces heat, and is particularly important as a way of maintaining body temperature for hibernating animals, although these proteins may also have a more general function in cells' responses to stress.
For another twenty years, the mechanism by which ATP is generated remained mysterious, with scientists searching for an elusive "high-energy intermediate" that would link oxidation and phosphorylation reactions. This puzzle was solved by Peter D. Mitchell with the publication of the chemiosmotic theory in 1961. At first, this proposal was highly controversial, but it was slowly accepted and Mitchell was awarded a Nobel prize in 1978. Subsequent research concentrated on purifying and characterizing the enzymes involved, with major contributions being made by David E. Green on the complexes of the electron-transport chain, as well as Efraim Racker on the ATP synthase. A critical step towards solving the mechanism of the ATP synthase was provided by Paul D. Boyer, by his development in 1973 of the "binding change" mechanism, followed by his radical proposal of rotational catalysis in 1982. More recent work has included structural studies on the enzymes involved in oxidative phosphorylation by John E. Walker, with Walker and Boyer being awarded a Nobel Prize in 1997.
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