Biology » Biology 205: Cellular Respiration » Energy in Living Systems

Electrons And Energy

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Electrons and Energy

The removal of an electron from a molecule, oxidizing it, results in a decrease in potential energy in the oxidized compound. The electron (sometimes as part of a hydrogen atom), does not remain unbonded, however, in the cytoplasm of a cell. Rather, the electron is shifted to a second compound, reducing the second compound.

The shift of an electron from one compound to another removes some potential energy from the first compound (the oxidized compound) and increases the potential energy of the second compound (the reduced compound). The transfer of electrons between molecules is important because most of the energy stored in atoms and used to fuel cell functions is in the form of high-energy electrons.

The transfer of energy in the form of electrons allows the cell to transfer and use energy in an incremental fashion—in small packages rather than in a single, destructive burst. This tutorial focuses on the extraction of energy from food; you will see that as you track the path of the transfers, you are tracking the path of electrons moving through metabolic pathways.

Electron Carriers

In living systems, a small class of compounds functions as electron shuttles: They bind and carry high-energy electrons between compounds in pathways. The principal electron carriers we will consider are derived from the B vitamin group and are derivatives of nucleotides. These compounds can be easily reduced (that is, they accept electrons) or oxidized (they lose electrons).

Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) (see the figure below) is derived from vitamin B3, niacin. NAD+ is the oxidized form of the molecule; NADH is the reduced form of the molecule after it has accepted two electrons and a proton (which together are the equivalent of a hydrogen atom with an extra electron).

NAD+ can accept electrons from an organic molecule according to the general equation:

\(\begin{array}{c}\text{RH}\\ \begin{array}{c}\text{Reducing }\\ \text{agent}\end{array}\end{array}\text{ + }\begin{array}{c}{\text{NAD}}^{+}\\ \begin{array}{c}\text{Oxidizing}\\ \text{agent}\end{array}\end{array}\to \text{ }\begin{array}{c}\text{NADH}\\ \text{Reduced}\end{array}\text{ +}\begin{array}{c}\text{R}\\ \text{Oxidized}\end{array}\)

When electrons are added to a compound, they are reduced. A compound that reduces another is called a reducing agent. In the above equation, RH is a reducing agent, and NAD+ is reduced to NADH. When electrons are removed from compound, it oxidized. A compound that oxidizes another is called an oxidizing agent. In the above equation, NAD+ is an oxidizing agent, and RH is oxidized to R.

Similarly, flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD+) is derived from vitamin B2, also called riboflavin. Its reduced form is FADH2. A second variation of NAD, NADP, contains an extra phosphate group. Both NAD+ and FAD+ are extensively used in energy extraction from sugars, and NADP plays an important role in anabolic reactions and photosynthesis.

Electrons And Energy

The oxidized form of the electron carrier (NAD+) is shown on the left and the reduced form (NADH) is shown on the right. The nitrogenous base in NADH has one more hydrogen ion and two more electrons than in NAD+.

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