A description of metabolism

08.55, Tuesday 20 Mar 2012

This is the most straightforward description of metabolism I’ve read. I’m just going to quote it all. I look at what I might highlight, and there’s not a wasted word.

One property of living things above all makes them seem almost miraculously different from nonliving matter: they create and maintain order, in a universe that is tending always to greater disorder. To create this order, the cells in a living organism must perform a never-ending stream of chemical reactions. In some of these reactions, small organic molecules–amino acids, sugars, nucleotides, and lipids–are being taken apart or modified to supply the many other small molecules that the cell requires. In other reactions, these small molecules are being used to construct an enormously diverse range of proteins, nucleic acids, and other macromolecules that endow living systems with all of their most distinctive properties. Each cell can be viewed as a tiny chemical factory, performing many millions of reactions every second.

The chemical reactions that a cell carries out would normally occur only at temperatures that are much higher than those existing inside cells. For this reason, each reaction requires a specific boost in chemical reactivity. This requirement is crucial, because it allows each reaction to be controlled by the cell. The control is exerted through the specialized proteins called enzymes, each of which accelerates, or catalyzes, just one of the many possible kinds of reactions that a particular molecule might undergo. Enzyme-catalyzed reactions are usually connected in series, so that the product of one reaction becomes the starting material, or substrate, for the next. These long linear reaction pathways are in turn linked to one another, forming a maze of interconnected reactions that enable the cell to survive, grow, and reproduce.

Two opposing streams of chemical reactions occur in cells: (1) the catabolic pathways break down foodstuffs into smaller molecules, thereby generating both a useful form of energy for the cell and some of the small molecules that the cell needs as building blocks, and (2) the anabolic, or biosynthetic, pathways use the energy harnessed by catabolism to drive the synthesis of the many other molecules that form the cell. Together these two sets of reactions constitute the metabolism of the cell.

From the chapter Catalysis and the Use of Energy by Cells in Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition.

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