Saturday, December 31, 2016

Water is Life Part 2: Respiration

Note: This program first aired on December 31, 2016. 

There has been a lot of talk lately about the fact that water is life. We spoke last week about the biochemical reality of that concept, and looked at how water is involved in photosynthesis on a molecular level. Water is key to the reaction that allows plants to transform the energy of the sun from non storable electromagnetic radiation to storable chemical energy. The other great biochemical reaction that life depends on is respiration, the liberation of energy from chemical bonds. And once again, as in photosynthesis, water isn’t the main focus of the chemical reaction, but an extremely useful and in fact necessary bystander, without which the reaction could not occur. The star of the respiration show, the final product that is the real reason for the reaction to occur is called ATP (or adenosine triphosphate), a high energy, unstable molecule that does a good job of temporarily holding on to the chemical energy liberated from the glucose molecule, for a matter of seconds to minutes. Everything that happens in respiration supports the formation of ATP, one way or another.

Typically we think of the respiration reaction as combining glucose and oxygen gas to yield carbon dioxide and water. In reality, we combine glucose, oxygen gas and water to yield carbon dioxide and even more water. We put some water in on the reactant side, and get even more water out on the product side.

Respiration, particularly the aerobic or oxygen using kind we are talking about today, is, just like photosynthesis, a fabulously complicated process with many mind numbing intermediate molecules. The first part of the process, glycolysis, has 10 sub reactions all of its own, just to turn a 6 carbon glucose molecule into two 3 carbon molecules. Those three carbon molecules, get further processed into two 2 carbon molecules, and then enter something you may remember from school, the Citric Acid cycle, or Kreb’s cycle, which uses a series of organic acids to further process the  two carbon molecules to their ultimate fate, being turned into carbon dioxide gas. And all along the way, at key steps, electrons are getting moved around, electrons that started in the glucose molecule. Electrons that originally came from water molecules back in the photosynthesis reaction that formed the glucose.

If you are thinking ahead, you can see where this is going. Water plays several roles in respiration. The first is that it is the solvent in which all of these other chemicals are dissolved. Without water, these reactions would have no matrix within which to take place. Secondly, water plays a supporting chemical role in the citric acid cycle, stepping in as a reactant. Water also allows for the initiation of respiration by hydrolyzing or breaking down starch and other more complex carbohydrates into individual glucose molecules. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, water gets formed as a result of all of those electrons getting passed around. 

As the electrons get moved from one intermediate carrier molecule to another, conditions inside the cell get set up for the generation of ATP, which remember is the ultimate goal of respiration. Once the stage is set for the ATP generation, virtually all of the useful energy has been wrung from the electrons, and the last hand off, to what we call the terminal electron acceptor, releases the last of the energy. The terminal electron acceptor is oxygen (that is why you need to breathe air with oxygen in it). Oxygen on its own though, with an extra couple of electrons, is what we call a free radical, an unstable and potentially destructive molecule. The destructive power is based on the imbalance of the electrostatic forces in the atom. To counter this, the oxygen quickly joins some hydrogen ions that are available in the cell, and forms water, and the products of respiration are complete. If water wasn’t formed as a result of respiration, we would be left with a free radical form of oxygen which can be destructive to the cell. So once again, the Oscar for best supporting chemical in a biological reaction goes to: water.


As if often the case, any college level Biology text book should cover this in sufficient detail. I use Freeman et al, Biological Science 6th ed. Pearson Higher Ed

From this article in Pharmacology Review: