Enzymes are biological catalysts that increase the rate of chemical reactions. Most enzymes are proteins,and their catalytic action results from their complex structure. The great diversity of protein structure allows different enzymes to be specialized in their action.
The ability of yeast cells to make alcohol from glucose (a process called fermentation) had been known since antiquity, yet even as late as the mid-nineteenth century no scientist had been able to duplicate this process in the absence of living yeast. Also, a vast array of chemical reactions occurred in yeast and other living cells at body temperature that could not be duplicated in the chemistry laboratory without adding substantial amounts of heat energy. These observations led many mid-nineteenth-century scientists to believe that chemical reactions in living cells were aided by a "vital force" that operated beyond the laws of the physical world. This vitalist concept was squashed along with the yeast cells when a pioneering biochemist, Eduard Buchner, demonstrated that juice obtained from yeast could ferment glucose to alcohol. The yeast juice was not alive—evidently some chemicals in the cells were responsible for fermentation. Buchner didn't know what these chemicals were, so he simply named them enzymes (Greek for "in yeast").
Chemically, enzymes are a subclass of proteins. The only known exceptions are the few special cases in which RNA demonstrates enzymatic activity; in these cases they are called ribozymes. Ribozymes function as enzymes in reactions involving remodeling of the RNA molecules themselves, and in the formation of a growing polypeptide in ribosomes.
Functionally, enzymes (and ribozymes) are biological catalysts. A catalyst is a chemical that (1) increases the rate of a reaction, (2) is not itself changed at the end of the reaction, and (3) does not change the nature of the reaction or its final result. The same reaction would have occurred to the same degree in the absence of the catalyst, but it would have progressed at a much slower rate.
In order for a given reaction to occur, the reactants must have sufficient energy. The amount of energy required for a reaction to proceed is called the activation energy. By analogy, a match will not burn and release heat energy unless it is first "activated" by striking the match or by placing it in a flame.
In a large population of molecules, only a small fraction will possess sufficient energy for a reaction. Adding heat will raise the energy level of all the reactant molecules, thus increasing the percentage of the population that has the activation energy. Heat makes reactions go faster, but it also produces undesirable side effects in cells. Catalysts make reactions go faster at lower temperatures by lowering the activation energy required, thus ensuring that a larger percentage of the population of reactant molecules will have sufficient energy to participate in the reaction (fig. 4.1).
Since a small fraction of the reactants will have the activation energy required for a reaction even in the absence of a catalyst, the reaction could theoretically occur spontaneously at a slow rate. This rate, however, would be much too slow for the needs of a cell. So, from a biological standpoint, the presence or absence of a specific enzyme catalyst acts as a switch—the reaction will occur if the enzyme is present and will not occur if the enzyme is absent.
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This ebook provides an introductory explanation of the workings of the human body, with an effort to draw connections between the body systems and explain their interdependencies. A framework for the book is homeostasis and how the body maintains balance within each system. This is intended as a first introduction to physiology for a college-level course.