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 high-energy electrons allows the cell to transfer and use energy in an incremental fashion—in small packages rather than in a single, destructive burst. This chapter 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.
In living systems, a small class of compounds functions as electron shuttles: they bind and carry high-energy electrons between compounds in biochemical 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) (Figure) 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). Note that if a compound has an “H” on it, it is generally reduced (e.g., NADH is the reduced form of NAD).
NAD+ can accept electrons from an organic molecule according to the general equation:
When electrons are added to a compound, it is 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 a compound, it is 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 in plants.