The processes of making and breaking down sugar molecules illustrate two types of metabolic pathways. A metabolic pathway is a series of interconnected biochemical reactions that convert a substrate molecule or molecules, step-by-step, through a series of metabolic intermediates, eventually yielding a final product or products. In the case of sugar metabolism, the first metabolic pathway synthesized sugar from smaller molecules, and the other pathway broke sugar down into smaller molecules. Scientists call these two opposite processes—the first requiring energy and the second producing energy—anabolic (building) and catabolic (breaking down) pathways, respectively. Consequently, building (anabolism) and degradation (catabolism) comprise metabolism.
Evolution of Metabolic PathwaysThere is more to the complexity of metabolism than understanding the metabolic pathways alone. Metabolic complexity varies from organism to organism. Photosynthesis is the primary pathway in which photosynthetic organisms like plants (planktonic algae perform the majority of global synthesis) harvest the sun’s energy and convert it into carbohydrates. The by-product of photosynthesis is oxygen, which some cells require to carry out cellular respiration. During cellular respiration, oxygen aids in the catabolic breakdown of carbon compounds, like carbohydrates. Among the products are CO2 and ATP. In addition, some eukaryotes perform catabolic processes without oxygen (fermentation); that is, they perform or use anaerobic metabolism.
Organisms probably evolved anaerobic metabolism to survive (living organisms came into existence about 3.8 billion years ago, when the atmosphere lacked oxygen). Despite the differences between organisms and the complexity of metabolism, researchers have found that all branches of life share some of the same metabolic pathways, suggesting that all organisms evolved from the same ancient common ancestor (Figure). Evidence indicates that over time, the pathways diverged, adding specialized enzymes to allow organisms to better adapt to their environment, thus increasing their chance to survive. However, the underlying principle remains that all organisms must harvest energy from their environment and convert it to ATP to carry out cellular functions.
Anabolic and Catabolic Pathways
Anabolic pathways require an input of energy to synthesize complex molecules from simpler ones. Synthesizing sugar from CO2 is one example. Other examples are synthesizing large proteins from amino acid building blocks, and synthesizing new DNA strands from nucleic acid building blocks. These biosynthetic processes are critical to the cell's life, take place constantly, and demand energy that ATP and other high-energy molecules like NADH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) and NADPH provide (Figure).
ATP is an important molecule for cells to have in sufficient supply at all times. The breakdown of sugars illustrates how a single glucose molecule can store enough energy to make a great deal of ATP, 36 to 38 molecules. This is a catabolic pathway. Catabolic pathways involve degrading (or breaking down) complex molecules into simpler ones. Molecular energy stored in complex molecule bonds release in catabolic pathways and harvest in such a way that it can produce ATP. Other energy-storing molecules, such as fats, also break down through similar catabolic reactions to release energy and make ATP (Figure).
It is important to know that metabolic pathway chemical reactions do not take place spontaneously. A protein called an enzyme facilitates or catalyzes each reaction step. Enzymes are important for catalyzing all types of biological reactions—those that require energy as well as those that release energy.