Energy efficiency of human machine

Living organisms require energy for every activity they perform. As I am keying in from the keyboard, energy is being used for movement of fingers, thought and coordination processes running in the brain. The immediate source of this energy in heterotrophic organisms, which include animals, fungi, and most bacteria, is the sugar glucose. Glucose is oxidized into carbon dioxide and water with the help of inhaled oxygen and in the process 2880 KJ/mol energy is released.

Of course it would not do to simply “burn” the glucose in the normal way; the energy change would be wasted as heat, and rather too quickly for the well-being of the organism! Effective utilization of this free energy requires a means of capturing it from the glucose and then releasing it in small amounts when and where it is needed.

Mechanism of breakdown of glucose occurs in controlled manner in a series of a dozen or more steps in which the energy liberated in each stage is captured by an “energy carrier” molecule, of which the most important is adenosine diphosphate, known as ADP. At each step in the breakdown of glucose, an ADP molecule reacts with inorganic phosphate and changes into ATP. Each such step require 30 kJ/mol

The 30 kJ mol–1 of free energy stored in each ATP molecule is released when the molecule travels to a site where it is needed and loses one of its phosphate groups, yielding inorganic phosphate and ADP, which eventually finds its way back the site of glucose metabolism for recycling back into ATP. The complete breakdown of one molecule of glucose is coupled with the production of 38 molecules of ATP according to the overall reaction. For each mole of glucose metabolized, 38 × (30 kJ) = 1140 kJ of free energy is captured as ATP, representing an energy efficiency of 1140/2880 = 0.4. That is, 40% of the free energy obtainable from the oxidation of glucose is made available to drive other metabolic processes. The rest is liberated as heat.

Where does the glucose come from? Animals obtain their glucose from their food, especially cellulose and starches that, like glucose have similar skeletal structure. Animals obtain this food by eating plants or other animals. Ultimately, all food comes from plants, most of which are able to make their own glucose from CO2 and H2O through the process of photosynthesis.

This describes aerobic respiration, which evolved after the development of photosynthetic life on Earth began to raise the concentration of atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen is a poison to most life processes at the cellular level, and it is believed that aerobic respiration developed as a means to protect organisms from this peril. Those that did not adapt have literally to deep down strata where oxygen cannot reach. These organism constitute the more primitive anaerobic bacteria.

The function of oxygen in respiration is to serve as an acceptor of the electrons that glucose loses when it undergoes oxidation. Other electron acceptors can fulfill the same function when oxygen is not available, but none yields nearly as much free energy. For example, if oxygen cannot be supplied to mammalian muscle cells as rapidly as it is needed, they switch over to an anaerobic process yielding lactic acid instead of CO2. In this process, only (2 × 30 kJ/mol) = 60 kJ/mol of free energy is captured, so the efficiency is only 28% on the basis of this reaction, and it is even lower in relation to glucose. In “aerobic” exercising, one tries to maintain sufficient lung capacity and cardiac output to supply oxygen to muscle cells at a rate that promotes the aerobic pathway.


4 thoughts on “Energy efficiency of human machine

  1. Great article. Glucose metabolism pathway is also known as Krebs Cycle also known as citric acid cycle. During graduate studies in Biochemistry class we have to remember all the steps. It was very interesting read. Reminds of my student days.

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