Metabolism without Oxygen

Anaerobic Cellular Respiration

Certain prokaryotes, including some species in the domains Bacteria and Archaea, use anaerobic respiration. For example, a group of archaeans called methanogens reduces carbon dioxide to methane to oxidize NADH. These microorganisms are found in soil and in the digestive tracts of ruminants, such as cows and sheep. Similarly, sulfate-reducing bacteria, most of which are anaerobic (Figure), reduce sulfate to hydrogen sulfide to regenerate NAD+ from NADH.

This photo shows a bloom of green bacteria in water.
The green color seen in these coastal waters is from an eruption of hydrogen sulfide–producing bacteria. These anaerobic, sulfate-reducing bacteria release hydrogen sulfide gas as they decompose algae in the water. (credit: modification of work by NASA/Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC, Visible Earth Catalog of NASA images)

Link to Learning

Visit this site to see anaerobic cellular respiration in action.

Lactic Acid Fermentation

The fermentation method used by animals and certain bacteria, such as those in yogurt, is lactic acid fermentation (Figure). This type of fermentation is used routinely in mammalian red blood cells, which do not have mitochondria, and in skeletal muscle that has an insufficient oxygen supply to allow aerobic respiration to continue (that is, in muscles used to the point of fatigue). In muscles, lactic acid accumulation must be removed by the blood circulation, and when the lactic acid loses a hydrogen, the resulting lactate is brought to the liver for further metabolism. The chemical reactions of lactic acid fermentation are the following:

Pyruvic acid + NADH lactic acid + NAD +

The enzyme used in this reaction is lactate dehydrogenase (LDH). The reaction can proceed in either direction, but the reaction from left to right is inhibited by acidic conditions. Such lactic acid accumulation was once believed to cause muscle stiffness, fatigue, and soreness, although more recent research disputes this hypothesis. Once the lactic acid has been removed from the muscle and circulated to the liver, it can be reconverted into pyruvic acid and further catabolized for energy.

Art Connection

This illustration shows that during glycolysis, glucose is broken down into two pyruvate molecules and, in the process, two NADH are formed from NAD^{+}. During lactic acid fermentation, the two pyruvate molecules are converted into lactate, and NADH is recycled back into NAD^{+}.
Lactic acid fermentation is common in muscle cells that have run out of oxygen.

Tremetol, a metabolic poison found in the white snakeroot plant, prevents the metabolism of lactate. When cows eat this plant, tremetol is concentrated in the milk they produce. Humans who consume the milk can become seriously ill. Symptoms of this disease, which include vomiting, abdominal pain, and tremors, become worse after exercise. Why do you think this is the case?

Alcohol Fermentation

Another familiar fermentation process is alcohol fermentation (Figure), which produces ethanol. The first chemical reaction of alcohol fermentation is the following (CO2 does not participate in the second reaction):

pyruvic acid + H + CO 2 + acetaldehyde + NADH + H + ethanol + NAD +

The first reaction is catalyzed by pyruvate decarboxylase, a cytoplasmic enzyme, with a coenzyme of thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP, derived from vitamin B1 and also called thiamine). A carboxyl group is removed from pyruvic acid, releasing carbon dioxide as a gas. The loss of carbon dioxide reduces the size of the molecule by one carbon, producing acetaldehyde. The second reaction is catalyzed by alcohol dehydrogenase to oxidize NADH to NAD+ and reduce acetaldehyde to ethanol. The fermentation of pyruvic acid by yeast produces the ethanol found in alcoholic beverages. Ethanol tolerance of yeast is variable, ranging from about 5 percent to 21 percent, depending on the yeast strain and environmental conditions.

This photo shows large cylindrical fermentation tanks stacked one on top of the other.
Fermentation of grape juice into wine produces CO2 as a byproduct. Fermentation tanks have valves so that the pressure inside the tanks created by the carbon dioxide produced can be released.

Other Types of Fermentation

Other fermentation methods take place in bacteria. We should note that many prokaryotes are facultatively anaerobic. This means that they can switch between aerobic respiration and fermentation, depending on the availability of free oxygen. Certain prokaryotes, such as Clostridia, are obligate anaerobes. Obligate anaerobes live and grow in the absence of molecular oxygen. Oxygen is a poison to these microorganisms and kills them on exposure. We should also note that all forms of fermentation, except lactic acid fermentation, produce gas. The production of particular types of gas is used as an indicator of the fermentation of specific carbohydrates, which plays a role in the laboratory identification of the bacteria. Various methods of fermentation are used by assorted organisms to ensure an adequate supply of NAD+ for the sixth step in glycolysis. Without these pathways, this step would not occur, and ATP could not be harvested from the breakdown of glucose.

2 of 6