|In this section:||Metabolism: chemical reactions in cells | Anabolism and catabolism | How chemical reactions occur | Molecules move and collide | Activated complexes and activation energy | Catalysts | Test your knowledge|
Metabolism and energy
Countless chemical reactions take place in cells and are responsible for all the actions of organisms. Together, these reactions make up an organism's metabolism. The chemicals taking part in these reactions are called metabolites.
In all reactions:
When a chemical reaction takes place energy is either taken in or released. This depends on the relative strengths of bonds being broken and bonds being formed.
In an exergonic reaction, energy is released to the surroundings. The bonds being formed are stronger than the bonds being broken.
In an endergonic reaction, energy is absorbed from the surroundings. The bonds being formed are weaker than the bonds being broken.
You may also come across the terms exothermic and endothermic reactions. These describe exergonic and endergonic reactions when the energy released or absorbed is heat energy. In an exothermic reaction the temperature of the surroundings increases. In an endothermic reaction the temperature of the surroundings decreases.
Two types of metabolic reactions take place in the cell: 'building up' (anabolism) and 'breaking down' (catabolism).
Anabolic reactions use up energy. They are endergonic. In an anabolic reaction small molecules join to make larger ones. For example, the following condensation reactions that occur in cells are anabolic:
Catabolic reactions give out energy. They are exergonic. In a catabolic reaction large molecules are broken down into smaller ones. For example, the reverse of the condensation reactions described above, i.e. hydrolysis reactions, are catabolic.
Chemical reactions that occur during metabolism are affected by temperature. Many animals maintain a constant temperature which results in relatively stable rates of metabolic reactions. Cold-blooded animals are particularly influenced by the temperature of their environment - they are livelier when warm. In the cold their metabolism slows dramatically, and this is why some cold-blooded animals hibernate. Surgery is sometimes carried at low temperatures to slow the patient's metabolic rate, for example, during operations on the heart or brain.
Molecules are constantly moving. Their bonds vibrate and rotate. In gases, liquids and solutions molecules move around, bumping into one another. When molecules collide there is the possibility of a reaction taking place, but only if the colliding molecules:
The more collisions there are between molecules with sufficient energy and correct alignment, the faster the reaction takes place. This is called collision theory.
Some reactions take place in a single step. We can represent this using an energy profile. An activated complex (or transition state) forms between reactant and product. This is not a 'real' substance in the sense that it can be isolated and put in a test tube. But based on various pieces of experimental evidence it is the chemist's model of how the reaction occurs. The energy 'hump' shows how much energy reacting molecules must have for a 'successful' collision, i.e. one that leads to reaction. The formation of an activated complex requires energy to bring molecules together in the correct orientation. Therefore, it is always an endergonic reaction. The energy required is called the activation energy (Ea).
It is more common for reactions between molecules to take place in a series of consecutive steps. After each step a reaction intermediate forms. Unlike an activated complex this has a real existence. For each step an activated complex is formed and there is an associated activation energy. The step with the highest activation energy is the rate-determining step in the reaction and controls how fast the overall reaction is.
In chemical factories high temperatures and pressures are often used. However, this energy costs money. Catalysts make chemical reactions go more quickly and their use in the chemical industry saves time and money.
Cells are extremely sensitive to temperature and pressure. Catalysts are essential to make sure metabolic reactions take place under conditions the cell can withstand. Enzymes are nature's catalysts.
See also Enzymes