ATP: The Perfect Energy Currency for the Cell

In order to function, every machine requires specific parts such as screws, springs, cams, gears, and pulleys. Likewise, all biological machines must have many well-engineered parts to work. Examples include units called organs such as the liver, kidney, and heart. These complex life units are made from still smaller parts called cells which in turn are constructed from yet smaller machines known as organelles. Cell organelles include mitochondria, Golgi complexes, micro tubules, and centrioles.
ATP is an abbreviation for adenosine triphosphate, a complex molecule that contains the nucleoside adenosine and a tail consisting of three phosphates. (See Figure 1 for a simple structural formula and a space filled model of ATP.) As far as known, all organisms from the simplest bacteria to humans use ATP as their primary energy currency. The energy level it carries is just the right amount for most biological reactions. Nutrients contain energy in low-energy covalent bonds which are not very useful to do most of kinds of work in the cells.

These low energy bonds must be translated to high energy bonds, and this is a role of ATP. A steady supply of ATP is so critical that a poison which attacks any of the proteins used in ATP production kills the organism in minutes. Certain cyanide compounds, for example, are poisonous because they bind to the copper atom in cytochrome oxidase. This binding blocks the electron transport system in the mitochondria where ATP manufacture occurs (Goodsell, 1996, p.74).  
How ATP Transfers Energy
Energy is usually liberated from the ATP molecule to do work in the cell by a reaction that removes one of the phosphate-oxygen groups, leaving adenosine diphosphate (ADP). When the ATP converts to ADP, the ATP is said to be spent. Then the ADP is usually immediately recycled in the mitochondria where it is recharged and comes out again as ATP. In the words of Trefil (1992, p. 93) “hooking and unhooking that last phosphate [on ATP] is what keeps the whole world operating.”

The enormous amount of activity that occurs inside each of the approximately one hundred trillion human cells is shown by the fact that at any instant each cell contains about one billion ATP molecules. This amount is sufficient for that cell’s needs for only a few minutes and must be rapidly recycled. Given a hundred trillion cells in the average male, about 1023 or one sextillion ATP molecules normally exist in the body. For each ATP “the terminal phosphate is added and removed 3 times each minute”
The Function of ATP
The ATP is used for many cell functions including transport work moving substances across cell membranes. It is also used for mechanical work, supplying the energy needed for muscle contraction. It supplies energy not only to heart muscle (for blood circulation) and skeletal muscle (such as for gross body movement), but also to the chromosomes and flagella to enable them to carry out their many functions. A major role of ATP is in chemical work, supplying the needed energy to synthesize the multi-thousands of types of macromolecules that the cell needs to exist.

ATP is also used as an on-off switch both to control chemical reactions and to send messages. The shape of the protein chains that produce the building blocks and other structures used in life is mostly determined by weak chemical bonds that are easily broken and remade. These chains can shorten, lengthen, and change shape in response to the input or withdrawal of energy. The changes in the chains alter the shape of the protein and can also alter its function or cause it to become either active or inactive.

 The ATP molecule can bond to one part of a protein molecule, causing another part of the same molecule to slide or move slightly which causes it to change its conformation, inactivating the molecule. Subsequent removal of ATP causes the protein to return to its original shape, and thus it is again functional. The cycle can be repeated until the molecule is recycled, effectively serving as an on and off switch (Hoagland and Dodson, 1995, p.104). Both adding a phosphorus (phosphorylation) and removing a phosphorus from a protein (dephosphorylation) can serve as either an on or an off switch.

How is ATP Produced?
ATP is manufactured as a result of several cell processes including fermentation, respiration and photosynthesis. Most commonly the cells use ADP as a precursor molecule and then add a phosphorus to it. In eukaryotes this can occur either in the soluble portion of the cytoplasm (cytosol) or in special energy-producing structures called mitochondria. Charging ADP to form ATP in the mitochondria is called chemiosmotic phosphorylation. This process occurs in specially constructed chambers located in the mitochondrion’s inner membranes
In this brief review we have examined only one cell macromolecule, ATP, and the intricate mechanisms which produce it. We have also looked at the detailed supporting mechanism which allows the ATP molecule to function. ATP is only one of hundreds of thousands of essential molecules, each one that has a story. As each of those stories is told, they will stand as a tribute to both the genius and the enormously complex design of the natural world. All the books in the largest library in the world may not be able to contain the information needed to understand and construct the estimated 100,000 complex macromolecule machines used in humans. Much progress has been made in understanding the structure and function of organic macromolecules and some of the simpler ones are now being manufactured by pharmaceutical firms.
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Darnell, James, Harvey Lodish, and David Baltimore. 1996. Molecular cell biology, 3rd edition. W.H. Freeman. New York.

Goodsell, David S. 1996. Our molecular nature. Springer-Verlag. New York.

Hickman, Cleveland P. 1997. Integrated principles of zoology, 10th edition. William C. Brown/McGraw Hill. New York.

Hickman, Cleveland P., Larry Roberts, and Allan Larson. 1997. The biology of animals, 7th edition. William C. Brown/McGraw Hill. New York.

Hoagland, Mahlon and Bert Dodson. 1995. The way life works. Random House. New York.

Jensen, Marcus, Donald Wright, and Richard Robinson. 1997. Microbiology for the health sciences, 4th edition. Prentice-Hall. Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Kornberg, Arthur. 1989. For the love of enzymes. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA.

Lim, Daniel. 1998. Microbiology, 2nd edition. William C. Brown/McGraw Hill. New York.

Mader, Sylvia. 1996. Biology, 6th edition. William C. Brown. Dubuque, IA. 

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