Fifteen to twenty billion years ago the universe arose with a cataclysmic explosion that hurled hot, energy-rich subatomic particles into all space. Within seconds, the simplest elements (hydrogen and helium) were formed. As the universe expanded and cooled, galaxies condensed under the influence of gravity. Within these galaxies, enormous stars formed and later exploded as supernovae, releasing the energy needed to fuse simpler atomic nuclei into the more complex elements. Thus were produced, over billions of years, the chemical elements found on earth today. Biochemistry asks how the thousands of different biomolecules formed from these elements interact with each other to confer the remarkable properties of living organisms.
In Part I we will summarize the biological and chemical background to biochemistry. Living organisms operate within the same physical laws that apply to all natural processes, and we begin by discussing those laws and several axioms that flow from them (Chapter 1). These axioms make up the molecular logic of life. They define the means by which cells transform energy to accomplish work, catalyze the chemical transformations that typify them, assemble molecules of great complexity from simpler subunits, form supramolecular complexes that are the machinery of life, and store and pass on the instructions for the assembly of all future generations of organisms from simple, nonliving precursors.
Cells, the units of all living organisms, share certain features; but the cells of different organisms, and the various cell types within a single organism, are remarkably diverse in structure and function. Chapter 2 is a brief description of the common features and the diverse specializations of cells, and of the evolutionary processes that lead to such diversity.
Nearly all of the organic compounds from which living organisms are constructed are products of biological activity. These biomolecules were selected during the course of biological evolution for their fitness in performing specific biochemical and cellular functions. The biomolecules can be characterized and understood in the same terms that apply to the molecules of inanimate matter: the types of bonds between atoms, the factors that contribute to bond formation and bond strength, the three-dimensional structure of molecules, and chemical reactivities. Three-dimensional structure is especially important in biochemistry; the specificity of biological interactions, such as those between enzyme and substrate, antibody and antigen, hormone and receptor, is achieved by close steric complementarity between molecules. Prominent among the forces that stabilize three-dimensional
Water is the medium in which the first cells arose, and the solvent in which most biochemical transformations occur. The properties of water have shaped the course of evolution and exert a decisive influence on the structure of biomolecules in aqueous solution. Many of the weak interactions within and between biomolecules are strongly affected by the solvent properties of water. Even water-insoluble components of cells, such as membrane lipids, interact with each other in ways dictated by the polar properties of water. In Chapter 4 we consider the properties of water, the weak noncovalent interactions that occur in aqueous solutions of biomolecules, and the ionization of water and of solutes in aqueous solution.
These initial chapters are intended to provide a chemical backdrop for the later discussions of biochemical structures and reactions, so that whatever your background in chemistry or biology, you can immediately begin to follow, and to enjoy, the action.
Living organisms are composed of lifeless molecules. When these molecules are isolated and examined individually, they conform to all the physical and chemical laws that describe the behavior of inanimate matter. Yet living organisms possess extraordinary attributes not shown by any random collection of molecules. In this chapter, we first consider the properties of living organisms that distinguish them from other collections of matter. After arriving at a broad definition of life, we can describe a set of principles that characterize all living organisms. These principles underlie the organization of organisms and the cells that make them up, and they provide the framework for this book. They will help you to keep the larger picture in mind while exploring the illustrative examples presented in the text.
Living Matter Has Several Characteristics
What distinguishes all living organisms from all inanimate objects? First, they are structurally complicated and highly organized. They possess intricate internal structures (Fig. 1–1a) and contain many kinds of complex molecules. By contrast, the inanimate matter in our environment – clay, sand, rocks, seawater – usually consists of mixtures of relatively simple chemical compounds.
Second, living organisms extract, transform, and use energy from their environment (Fig. 1–1b), usually in the form of either chemical nutrients or the radiant energy of sunlight. This energy enables living organisms to build and maintain their own intricate structures and to do mechanical, chemical, osmotic, and other types of work. By contrast, inanimate matter does not use energy in a systematic way to maintain structure or to do work. Inanimate matter tends to decay toward a more disordered state, to come to equilibrium with its surroundings.
The third and most characteristic attribute of living organisms is the capacity for precise self-replication and self-assembly (Fig. 1–1c), a property that can be regarded as the quintessence of the living state. A single bacterial cell placed in a sterile nutrient medium can give rise to a billion identical "daughter" cells in 24 hours. Each of the cells contains thousands of different molecules, some extremely complex; yet each bacterium is a faithful copy of the original, constructed entirely from information contained within the genetic material of the original cell. By contrast, mixtures of inanimate matter show no capacity to grow and reproduce in forms identical in mass, shape, and internal structure, generation after generation.
Each component of a living organism has a specific function. This is true not only of macroscopic structures such as leaves and stems or hearts and lungs, but also of microscopic intracellular structures such as the nucleus or chloroplast. Even individual chemical compounds in cells have specific functions. The interplay among the chemical components of a living organism is dynamic; changes in one component cause coordinating or compensating changes in another, with the result that the whole ensemble displays a character beyond that of the individual constituents. The collection of molecules carries out a program, the end result of which is the reproduction of the program and the self-perpetuation of that collection of molecules.
Biochemistry Seeks to Explain Life in Chemical Terms
The molecules of which living organisms are composed conform to all the familiar laws of chemistry, but they also interact with each other in accordance with another set of principles, which we shall refer to collectively as the molecular logic of life. These principles do not involve new or as yet undiscovered physical laws or forces. Instead, they are a set of relationships characterizing the nature, function, and interactions of biomolecules.
If living organisms are composed of molecules that are intrinsically inanimate, how do these molecules confer the remarkable combination of characteristics we call life? How is it that a living organism appears to be more than the sum of its inanimate parts? Philosophers once answered that living organisms are endowed with a mysterious and divine life force, but this doctrine (vitalism) has been firmly rejected by modern science. The basic goal of the science of biochemistry is to determine how the collections of inanimate molecules that constitute living organisms interact with each other to maintain and perpetuate life. Although biochemistry yields important insights and practical applications in medicine, agriculture, nutrition, and industry, it is ultimately concerned with the wonder of life itself.
Chemical Unity Underlies Biological Diversity
A massive oak tree, an eagle that soars above it, and a soil bacterium that grows among its roots appear superficially to have very little in common. However, a hundred years of biochemical research has revealed that living organisms are remarkably alike at the microscopic and chemical levels (Fig. 1–2). Biochemistry seeks to describe in molecular terms those structures, mechanisms, and chemical processes shared by all organisms and to discover the organizing principles that underlie life in all of its diverse forms.
All Macromolecules Are Constructed from a Few Simple Compounds
Most of the molecular constituents of living systems are composed of carbon atoms covalently joined with other carbon atoms and with hydrogen, oxygen, or nitrogen. The special bonding properties of carbon permit the formation of a great variety of molecules. Organic compounds of molecular weight (Mr) less than about 500, such as amino acids, nucleotides, and monosaccharides, serve as monomeric subunits of proteins, nucleic acids, and polysaccharides, respectively. A single protein molecule may have 1,000 or more amino acids, and deoxyribonucleic acid has millions of nucleotides.
Each cell of the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli) contains more than 6,000 different kinds of organic compounds, including about 3,000 different proteins and a similar number of different nucleic acid molecules. In humans there may be tens of thousands of different kinds of proteins, as well as many types of polysaccharides (chains of simple sugars), a variety of lipids, and many other compounds of lower molecular weight.
To purify and to characterize thoroughly all of these molecules would be an insuperable task were it not for the fact that each class of macromolecules (proteins, nucleic acids, polysaccharides) is composed of a small, common set of monomeric subunits. These monomeric subunits can be covalently linked in a virtually limitless variety of sequences (Fig. 1–3), just as the 26 letters of the English alphabet can be arranged into a limitless number of words, sentences, or books.
Deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA) are constructed from only four different kinds of simple monomeric subunits, the deoxyribonucleotides, and ribonucleic acids (RNA) are composed of just four types of ribonucleotides. Proteins are composed of 20 different kinds of amino acids. The eight kinds of nucleotides from which all nucleic acids are built and the 20 different kinds of amino acids from which all proteins are built are identical in all living organisms.
Most of the monomeric subunits from which all macromolecules are constructed serve more than one function in living cells. The nucleotides serve not only as subunits of nucleic acids, but also as energy-carrying molecules. The amino acids are subunits of protein molecules, and also precursors of hormones, neurotransmitters, pigments, and many other kinds of biomolecules.
From these considerations we can now set out some of the principles in the molecular logic of life:
There are underlying patterns in the structure of biological macromolecules.
The identity of each organism is preserved by its possession of distinctive sets of nucleic acids and of proteins.
Energy is a central theme in biochemistry: cells and organisms depend upon a constant supply of energy to oppose the inexorable tendency in nature for decay to the lowest energy state. The synthetic reactions that occur within cells, like the synthetic processes in any factory, require the input of energy. Energy is consumed in the motion of a bacterium or an Olympic sprinter, in the flashing of a firefly or the electrical discharge of an eel. The storage and expression of information cost energy, without which structures rich in information inevitably become disordered and meaningless. Cells have evolved highly efficient mechanisms for capturing the energy of sunlight, or extracting the energy of oxidizable fuels, and coupling the energy thus obtained to the many energy-consuming processes they carry out.
Organisms Are Never at Equilibrium with Their Surroundings
In the course of biological evolution, one of the first developments must have been an oily membrane that enclosed the water-soluble molecules of the primitive cell, segregating them and allowing them to accumulate to relatively high concentrations. The molecules and ions contained within a living organism differ in kind and in concentration from those in the organism’s surroundings. The cells of a freshwater fish contain certain inorganic ions at concentrations far different from those in the surrounding water (Fig. 1–4). Proteins, nucleic acids, sugars, and fats are present in the fish but essentially absent from the surrounding water, which instead contains carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms only in simpler molecules such as carbon dioxide and water. When the fish dies, its contents eventually come to equilibrium with those of its surroundings.
Molecular Composition Reflects a Dynamic Steady State
Although the chemical composition of an organism may be almost constant through time, the population of molecules within a cell or organism is far from static. Molecules are synthesized and then broken down by continuous chemical reactions, involving a constant flux of mass and energy through the system. The hemoglobin molecules carrying oxygen from your lungs to your brain at this moment were synthesized within the past month; by next month they will have been degraded and replaced with new molecules. The glucose you ingested with your most recent meal is now circulating in your bloodstream; before the day is over these particular glucose molecules will have been converted into something else, such as carbon dioxide or fat, and will have been replaced with a fresh supply of glucose. The amount of hemoglobin and glucose in the blood remains nearly constant because the rate of synthesis or intake of each just balances the rate of its breakdown, consumption, or conversion into some other product (Fig. 1–5). The constancy of concentration does not, therefore, reflect chemical inertness of the components, but is rather the result of a dynamic steady state.
Organisms Exchange Energy and Matter with Their Surroundings
Living cells and organisms must perform work to stay alive and to reproduce themselves. The continual synthesis of cellular components requires chemical work; the accumulation and retention of salts and various organic compounds against a concentration gradient involves osmotic work; and the contraction of a muscle or the motion of a bacterial flagellum represents mechanical work. Biochemistry examines the processes by which energy is extracted, channeled, and consumed, so it is essential to develop an understanding of the fundamental principles of bioenergetics.
Consider the simple mechanical example shown in Figure 1–6. An object at the top of an inclined plane has a certain amount of potential energy as a result of its elevation. It tends spontaneously to slide down the plane, losing its potential energy of position as it approaches the ground. When an appropriate string-and-pulley device is attached to the object, the spontaneous downward motion can accomplish a certain
In the chemical analog of this mechanical example (Fig. 1–6, bottom), a reactant, B, is converted into a product, C. The compounds B and C each contain a certain amount of potential energy, related to the kind and number of bonds in each type of molecule. This energy is analogous to the potential energy in an elevated object. Some of the energy is available to do work when B is converted into C by a chemical reaction that involves no change in temperature or pressure. This portion of the energy, the free energy, is designated G (for J. Willard Gibbs, who developed much of the theory of chemical energetics), and the change in free energy during the conversion of B to C is ΔG.
We can define a system as all of the reactants and products, the solvent, and the immediate atmosphere – in short, everything within a defined region of space. The system and its surroundings together constitute the universe. If the system exchanges neither matter nor energy with its surroundings, it is said to be closed. The magnitude of the free-energy change for a process proceeding toward equilibrium depends upon how far from equilibrium the system was in its initial state. In the mechanical example, no spontaneous sliding will occur once the object has reached the ground; the object is then at equilibrium with its surroundings, and the free-energy change for sliding along the horizontal surface is zero.
In chemical reactions in closed systems, the process also proceeds spontaneously until equilibrium is reached. The free-energy change (ΔG) for a chemical reaction is a quantitative expression of how far the system is from chemical equilibrium. Reactions that proceed with the release of free energy are exergonic, and because the products of such reactions have less free energy than the reactants, ΔG is negative. Chemical reactions in which the products have more free energy than the reactants are endergonic, and for these reactions ΔG is positive. When all of the chemical species in the system are at equilibrium, the free-energy change for the reaction is zero, and no further net conversion of reactants into products will occur without the input of energy or matter from outside the system.
As in the mechanical example, some of the energy released in a spontaneous process can accomplish work – chemical work in this case. In living systems, as in mechanical processes, part of the total energy change in the chemical reaction is unavailable to accomplish work. Some is dissipated as heat, and some is lost as entropy, a measure of energy due to randomness, which we will define more rigorously later.
How is free energy from a chemical reaction channeled into energy-requiring processes in living organisms? In the mechanical example in Figure 1–6, it is clear that if one sliding object is coupled to another object on another inclined plane, the energy released by the spontaneous downward sliding of one may be harnessed to produce upward motion of the other, a motion that cannot occur spontaneously. This is a direct analogy to a biochemical process in which the energy released in an exergonic chemical reaction can be used to drive another reaction that is endergonic and would not proceed spontaneously. The reactions
A living organism is an open system; it exchanges both matter and energy with its surroundings. Living organisms use either of two strategies to derive free energy from their surroundings: (1) they take up chemical components from the environment (fuels), extract free energy by means of exergonic reactions involving these fuels, and couple these reactions to endergonic reactions; or (2) they use energy absorbed from sunlight to bring about exergonic photochemical reactions, to which they couple endergonic reactions.
Exergonic chemical or photochemical reactions are coupled to endergonic processes through shared chemical intermediates, channeling the free energy to do work.
The first law of thermodynamics, developed from physics and chemistry but fully valid for biological systems as well, describes the energy conservation principle:
Not until the nineteenth century did physicists discover that energy can be transduced (converted from one form to another), yet living cells have been using that principle for eons. Cells are consummate transducers of energy, capable of interconverting chemical, electromagnetic, mechanical, and osmotic energy with great efficiency (Fig. 1–7). Biological energy transducers differ from many familiar machines that depend on temperature or pressure differences. The steam engine, for example, converts the chemical energy of fuel into heat, raising the temperature of water to its boiling point to produce steam pressure that drives a mechanical device. The internal combustion engine, similarly, depends upon changes in temperature and pressure. By contrast, all parts of a living organism must operate at about the same temperature and pressure, and heat flow is therefore not a useful source of energy. Cells are isothermal, or constant-temperature, systems.
Virtually all of the energy transductions in cells can be traced to a flow of electrons from one molecule to another, in the oxidation of fuel or in the trapping of light energy during photosynthesis. This electron flow is "downhill," from higher to lower electrochemical potential; as such, it is formally analogous to the flow of electrons in an electric circuit driven by an electrical battery. Nearly all living organisms derive their energy, directly or indirectly, from the radiant energy of sunlight, which arises from the thermonuclear fusion reactions that form helium in the sun (Fig. 1–8). Photosynthetic cells absorb the sun’s radiant energy and use it to drive electrons from water to carbon dioxide, forming energy-rich products such as starch and sucrose. In doing so, most photosynthetic organisms release molecular oxygen into the atmosphere. Ultimately, nonphotosynthetic organisms obtain energy for their needs by oxidizing the energy-rich products of photosynthesis, passing electrons to atmospheric oxygen to form water, carbon dioxide, and other end products, which are recycled in the environment. All of these reactions involving electron flow are oxidation-reduction reactions. Thus, other principles of the living state emerge:
The flow of electrons in oxidation-reduction reactions underlies energy transduction and energy conservation in living cells.
All living organisms are dependent on each other through exchanges of energy and matter via the environment.
Enzymes Promote Sequences of Chemical Reactions
The fact that a reaction is exergonic does not mean that it will necessarily proceed rapidly. The reaction coordinate diagram in Figure 1–6 (bottom) is actually an oversimplification. The path from reactant to product almost invariably involves an energy barrier, called the activation barrier (Fig. 1–9), that must be surmounted for any reaction to occur. The breaking and joining of bonds generally requires the prior bending or stretching of existing bonds, creating a transition state of higher free energy than either reactant or product. The highest point in the reaction coordinate diagram represents the transition state.
Activation barriers are crucial to the stability of biomolecules in living systems. Although, when isolated from other cellular components, most biomolecules are stable for days or even years, inside cells they often undergo chemical transformations within milliseconds. Without activation barriers, biomolecules within cells would rapidly break down to simple, low-energy forms. The lifetime of complex molecules would be very short, and the extraordinary continuity and organization of life would be impossible.
Enzymes are, with a few exceptions we will consider later, proteins. Each enzyme protein is specific for the catalysis of a specific reaction, and each reaction in a cell is catalyzed by a different enzyme. Thousands of different types of enzymes are therefore required by each cell. The multiplicity of enzymes, their high specificity for reactants, and their susceptibility to regulation give cells the capacity to lower activation barriers selectively. This selectivity is crucial in the effective regulation of cellular processes.
Cells capture, store, and transport free energy in a chemical form. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) (Fig. 1–12) functions as the major carrier of chemical energy in all cells. ATP carries energy between metabolic pathways by serving as the shared intermediate that couples endergonic reactions to exergonic ones. The terminal phosphate group of ATP is transferred to a variety of acceptor molecules, which are thereby activated for further chemical transformation. The adenosine diphosphate (ADP) that remains after the phosphate transfer is recycled to become ATP, at the expense of either chemical energy (during oxidative phosphorylation) or solar energy in photosynthetic cells (by the process of photophosphorylation). ATP is the major connecting link (the shared intermediate) between the catabolic and anabolic networks of enzyme-catalyzed reactions in the cell (Fig. 1–13).
Metabolism Is Regulated to Achieve Balance and Economy
Not only can living cells simultaneously synthesize thousands of different kinds of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and nucleic acid molecules and their simpler subunits, they can also do so in the precise proportions required by the cell. For example, when rapid cell growth occurs, the precursors of proteins and nucleic acids must be made in large quantities, whereas in nongrowing cells the requirement for these precursors is much reduced. Key enzymes in each metabolic pathway are regulated so that each type of precursor molecule is produced in a quantity appropriate to the current requirements of the cell. Consider the pathway shown in Figure 1–14 (see also Fig. 1–11), which leads to the synthesis of isoleucine (one of the amino acids, the monomeric subunits of proteins). If a cell begins to produce more isoleucine than is needed for protein synthesis, the unused isoleucine accumulates. High concentrations of isoleucine inhibit the catalytic activity of the first enzyme in the pathway, immediately slowing the production of the amino acid. Such negative feedback keeps the production and utilization of each metabolic intermediate in balance.
Living cells also regulate the synthesis of their own catalysts, the enzymes. Thus a cell can switch off the synthesis of an enzyme required to make a given product whenever that product is available ready-made in the environment. These self-adjusting and self-regulating properties allow cells to maintain themselves in a dynamic steady state, despite fluctuations in the external environment.
The continued existence of a biological species requires that its genetic information be maintained in a stable form and, at the same time, expressed with very few errors. Effective storage and accurate expression of the genetic message defines individual species, distinguishes them from one another, and assures their continuity over successive generations.
Among the seminal discoveries of twentieth-century biology are the chemical nature and the three-dimensional structure of the genetic material, DNA. The sequence of deoxyribonucleotides in this linear polymer encodes the instructions for forming all other cellular components and provides a template for the production of identical DNA molecules to be distributed to progeny when a cell divides.
Genetic Continuity Is Vested in DNA Molecules
Perhaps the most remarkable of all the properties of living cells and organisms is their ability to reproduce themselves with nearly perfect fidelity for countless generations. This continuity of inherited traits implies constancy, over thousands or millions of years, in the structure of the molecules that contain the genetic information. Very few historical records of civilization, even those etched in copper or carved in stone, have survived for a thousand years (Fig. 1–15). But there is good evidence that the genetic instructions in living organisms have remained nearly unchanged over very much longer periods; many bacteria have nearly the same size, shape, and internal structure and contain the same kinds of precursor molecules and enzymes as those that lived a billion years ago.
The capacity of living cells to preserve their genetic material and to duplicate it for the next generation results from the structural complementarity between the two halves of the DNA molecule (Fig. 1–16). The basic unit of DNA is a linear polymer of four different monomeric subunits, deoxyribonucleotides (see Fig. 1–3), arranged in a precise linear sequence. It is this linear sequence that encodes the genetic information. Two of these polymeric strands are twisted about each other to form the DNA double helix, in which each monomeric subunit in one strand pairs specifically with the complementary subunit in the opposite strand. In the enzymatic replication or repair of DNA, one of the two strands serves as a template for the assembly of another, structurally complementary DNA strand. Before a cell divides, the two DNA strands separate and each serves as a template for the synthesis of a complementary strand, generating two identical double-helical molecules, one for each daughter cell. If one strand is damaged, continuity of information is assured by the information present on the other strand.
The double-helical DNA molecule contains an internal template for its own replication and repair.
Despite the near-perfect fidelity of genetic replication, infrequent, unrepaired mistakes in the replication process produce changes in the nucleotide sequence of DNA, representing a genetic mutation (Fig. 1–17). Incorrectly repaired damage to one of the DNA strands has the same effect. Mutations can change the instructions for producing cellular components. Many mutations are deleterious or even lethal to the organism; they may, for example, cause the synthesis of a defective enzyme that is not able to catalyze an essential metabolic reaction.
Occasionally the mutation better equips an organism or cell to survive in its environment. The mutant enzyme might, for example, have acquired a slightly different specificity, so that it is now able to use as a reactant some compound that the cell was previously unable to metabolize. If a population of cells were to find itself in an environment where that compound was the only available source of fuel, the mutant cell would have an advantage over the other, unmutated (wild-type) cells in the population. The mutant cell and its progeny would survive in the new environment, whereas wild-type cells would starve and be eliminated.
Chance genetic variations in individuals in a population, combined with natural selection (survival of the fittest individuals in a challenging or changing environment), have resulted in the evolution of an enormous variety of organisms, each adapted to life in a particular ecological niche.
Biochemistry has confirmed and greatly extended evolutionary theory. Carolus Linnaeus recognized the anatomic similarities and differences among living organisms and provided a framework for assessing the relatedness of different species. Charles Darwin gave us a unifying hypothesis to explain the phylogeny of modern organisms – the origin of different species from a common ancestor. Biochemistry has begun to reveal the molecular anatomy of cells of different species – the sequences of subunits in nucleic acids and proteins and the three-dimensional structures of individual molecules of nucleic acid and protein. There is a reasonable prospect that when the twenty-first century dawns, we will know the entire nucleotide sequence of all of the genes that make up the biological heritage of a human.
At the molecular level, evolution is the emergence over time of different sequences of nucleotides within genes. With new genetic sequences being experimentally determined almost daily, biochemists have an enormously rich treasury of evidence with which to analyze evolutionary relationships and to refine evolutionary theory. The molecular phylogeny derived from gene sequences is consistent with, but in many cases more precise than, the classical phylogeny based on macroscopic structures.
Molecular structures and mechanisms have been conserved in evolution even though organisms have continuously diverged at the level of gross anatomy. At the molecular level, the basic unity of life is readily apparent; crucial molecular structures and mechanisms are remarkably similar from the simplest to the most complex organisms. Biochemistry makes it possible to discover the unifying features common to all life. This book examines many of these features: the mechanisms for energy conservation, biosynthesis, gene replication, and gene expression.
The Linear Sequence in DNA Encodes Proteins with Three-Dimensional Structures
The information in DNA is encoded as a linear (one-dimensional) sequence of the nucleotide units of DNA, but the expression of this information results in a three-dimensional cell. This change from one to three dimensions occurs in two phases. A linear sequence of deoxyribonucleotides in DNA codes (through the intermediary, RNA) for the production of a protein with a corresponding linear sequence of amino acids (Fig. 1–18). The protein folds itself into a particular three-dimensional shape, dictated by its amino acid sequence. The precise three-dimensional structure (native conformation) is crucial to the protein’s function as either catalyst or structural element. This principle emerges:
Once a protein has folded into its native conformation, it may associate noncovalently with other proteins, or with nucleic acids or lipids,
Noncovalent Interactions Stabilize Three-Dimensional Structures
The forces that provide stability and specificity to the three-dimensional structures of macromolecules and supramolecular complexes are mostly noncovalent interactions. These interactions, individually weak but collectively strong, include hydrogen bonds, ionic interactions among charged groups, van der Waals interactions, and hydrophobic interactions among nonpolar groups. These weak interactions are transient; individually they form and break in small fractions of a second. The transient nature of noncovalent interactions confers a flexibility on macromolecules that is critical to their function. Furthermore, the large number of noncovalent interactions in a single macromolecule makes it unlikely that at any given moment all the interactions will be broken; thus macromolecular structures are stable over time.
The flexibility and stability of the double-helical structure of DNA are due to the complementarity of its two strands and the many weak interactions between them. The flexibility of these interactions allows strand separation during DNA replication (see Fig. 1–16); the complementarity of the double helix is essential to genetic continuity.
Noncovalent interactions are also central to the specificity and catalytic efficiency of enzymes. Enzymes bind transition-state intermediates through numerous weak but precisely oriented interactions. Because the weak interactions are flexible, the complex survives the structural distortions as the reactant is converted into product.
The formation of noncovalent interactions provides the energy for self-assembly of macromolecules by stabilizing native conformations relative to unfolded, random forms. The native conformation of a protein is that in which the energetic advantages of forming weak interactions counterbalance the tendency of the protein chain to assume random forms. Given a specific linear sequence of amino acids and a specific set of conditions (temperature, ionic conditions, pH), a protein will assume its native conformation spontaneously, without a template or scaffold to direct the folding.
We can now summarize the various principles of the molecular logic of life:
The cell carries out many consecutive reactions promoted by specific catalysts, called enzymes, which it produces itself.
The cell maintains itself in a dynamic steady state, far from equilibrium with its surroundings. There is great economy of parts and processes, achieved by regulation of the catalytic activity of key enzymes.
Self-replication through many generations is ensured by the self-repairing, linear information-coding system. Genetic information encoded as sequences of nucleotide subunits in DNA and RNA specifies the sequence of amino acids in each distinct protein, which ultimately determines the three-dimensional structure and function of each protein.
Many weak (noncovalent) interactions, acting cooperatively, stabilize the three-dimensional structures of biomolecules and supramolecular complexes.
At no point in our examination of the molecular logic of living cells have we encountered any violation of known physical laws; nor have we needed to define new physical laws. The organic machinery of living cells functions within the same set of laws that governs the operation of inanimate machines, but the chemical reactions and regulatory processes of cells have been highly refined during evolution.
This set of principles has been most thoroughly validated in studies of unicellular organisms (such as the bacterium E. coli), which are exceptionally amenable to biochemical and genetic study. Although multicellular organisms must solve certain problems not encountered by unicellular organisms, such as the differentiation of the fertilized egg into specialized cell types, the same principles have been found to apply. Can such simple and mechanical statements apply to humans as well, with their extraordinary capacity for thought, language, and creativity? The pace of recent biochemical progress toward understanding such processes as gene regulation, cellular differentiation, communication among cells, and neural function has been extraordinarily fast, and is accelerating. The success of biochemical methods in solving and redefining these problems justifies the hope that the most complex functions of the most highly developed organism will eventually be explicable in molecular terms.
The relevant facts of biochemistry are many; the student approaching this subject for the first time may occasionally feel overwhelmed. Perhaps the most encouraging development in twentieth-
Asimov, I. (1962) Life and Energy: An Exploration of the Physical and Chemical Basis of Modern Biology, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York.An engaging account of the role of energy transformations in biology, written for the intelligent layman.
Blum, H.F. (1968) Time’s Arrow and Euolution, 3rd edn, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.An excellent discussion of the way the second law of thermodynamics has influenced biological euolution.
Dulbecco, R. (1987) The Design of Life, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.An unusual and excellent introduction to biology.
Fruton, J.S. (1972) Molecules and Life. Historical Essays on the Interplay of Chemistry and Biology, Wiley-Interscience, New York.This series of essays describes the development of biochemistry from Pasteur’s studies of fermentation to the present studies of metabolism and information transfer. You may want to refer to these essays through this textbook.
Fruton, J.S. (1992) A Skeptical Biochemist, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Hawking, S. (1988) A Brief History of Time, Bantam Books, Inc., New York.
Jacob, F. (1973) The Logic of Life: A History of Heredity, Pantheon Books, Inc., New York. Originally published (1970) as La logique du vivant: une histoire de l’hérédité, Editions Gallimard, Paris.A fascinating historical and philosophical account of the route by which we came to the present molecular understanding of life.
Kornberg, A. (1987) The two cultures: chemistry and biology. Biochem. 26, 6888–6891.The importance of applying chemical tools to biological problems, described by an eminent practitioner.
Monod, J. (1971) Chance and Necessity, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York. [Paperback version (1972) Vintage Books, New York.] Originally published (1970) as Le hasard et la necessité, Editions du Seuil, Paris.An exploration of the philosophical implications of biological knowledge.
Schrödinger, E. (1944) What is Life?, Cambridge University Press, New York. [Reprinted (1956) in What is Life? and Other Scientific Essays, Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, NY.]A thought-provoking look at life, written by a prominent physical chemist.
Despite their many differences, cells of all kinds share certain structural features (Fig. 2–1). The plasma membrane defines the periphery of the cell, separating its contents from the surroundings. It is composed of enormous numbers of lipids and protein molecules, held together primarily by noncovalent hydrophobic interactions (p. 18), forming a thin, tough, pliable, hydrophobic bilayer around the cell. The membrane is a barrier to the free passage of inorganic ions and most other charged or polar compounds; transport proteins in the plasma membrane allow the passage of certain ions and molecules. Other membrane proteins are receptors that transmit signals from the outside to the inside of the cell, or are enzymes that participate in membrane-associated reaction pathways.
Because the individual lipid and protein subunits of the plasma membrane are not covalently linked, the entire structure is remarkably flexible, allowing changes in the shape and size of the cell. As a cell grows, newly made lipid and protein molecules are inserted into its plasma membrane; cell division produces two cells, each with its own membrane. Growth and fission occur without loss of membrane integrity. In a reversal of the fission process, two separate membrane surfaces can fuse, also without loss of integrity. Membrane fusion and fission are central to mechanisms of transport known as endocytosis and exocytosis.
The internal volume bounded by the plasma membrane, the cytoplasm, is composed of an aqueous solution, the cytosol, and a variety of insoluble, suspended particles (Fig. 2–1). The cytosol is not simply a dilute aqueous solution; it has a complex composition and gel-like consistency. Dissolved in the cytosol are many enzymes and the RNA molecules that encode them; the monomeric subunits (amino acids and nucleotides) from which these macromolecules are assembled; hundreds of small organic molecules called metabolites, intermediates in biosynthetic and degradative pathways; coenzymes, compounds of
Among the particles suspended in the cytosol are supramolecular complexes and, in higher organisms but not in bacteria, a variety of membrane-bounded organelles in which specialized metabolic machinery is localized. Ribosomes, complexes of over 50 different protein and RNA molecules, are small particles, 18 to 22 nm in diameter. Ribosomes are the enzymatic machines on which protein synthesis occurs; they often occur in clusters called polysomes (polyribosomes) held together by a strand of messenger RNA. Also present in the cytoplasm of many cells are granules containing stored nutrients such as starch and fat. Nearly all living cells have either a nucleus or a nucleoid, in which the genome (the complete set of genes, composed of DNA) is stored and replicated. The DNA molecules are always very much longer than the cells themselves, and are tightly folded and packed within the nucleus or nucleoid as supramolecular complexes of DNA with specific proteins. The bacterial nucleoid is not separated from the cytoplasm by a membrane, but in higher organisms, the nuclear material is enclosed within a double membrane, the nuclear envelope. Cells with nuclear envelopes are called eukaryotes (Greek eu, "true," and karyon, "nucleus"); those without nuclear envelopes – bacterial cells – are prokaryotes (Greek pro, "before"). Unlike bacteria, eukaryotes have a variety of other membrane-bounded organelles in their cytoplasm, including mitochondria, lysosomes, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi complexes, and, in photosynthetic cells, chloroplasts.
In this chapter we review briefly the evolutionary relationships among some commonly studied cells and organisms, and the structural features that distinguish cells of various types. Our main focus is on eukaryotic cells. Also discussed in brief are the cellular parasites known as viruses.
Most cells are of microscopic size. Animal and plant cells are typically 10 to 30 μm in diameter, and many bacteria are only 1 to 2 μm long.
What limits the dimensions of a cell? The lower limit is probably set by the minimum number of each of the different biomolecules required by the cell. The smallest complete cells, certain bacteria known collectively as mycoplasma, are 300 nm in diameter and have a volume of about 10-14 mL. A single ribosome is about 20 nm in its longest dimension, so a few ribosomes take up a substantial fraction of the cell’s volume. In a cell of this size, a 1 μM solution of a compound represents only 6,000 molecules.
The upper limit of cell size is set by the rate of diffusion of solute molecules in aqueous systems. The availability of fuels and essential nutrients from the surrounding medium is sometimes limited by the rate of their diffusion to all regions of the cell. A bacterial cell that depends upon oxygen-consuming reactions for energy production (an aerobic cell) must obtain molecular oxygen (O2) from the surrounding medium by diffusion through its plasma membrane. The cell is so small, and the ratio of its surface area to its volume is so large, that every part of its cytoplasm is easily reached by O2 diffusing into the cell. As the size of a cell increases, its surface-to-volume ratio decreases (Fig. 2–2), until metabolism consumes O2 faster than diffusion can
There are interesting exceptions to this generalization that cells must be small. The giant alga Nitella has cells several centimeters long. To assure the delivery of nutrients, metabolites, and genetic information (RNA) to all of its parts, each cell is vigorously "stirred" by active cytoplasmic streaming (p. 43). The shape of a cell can also help to compensate for its large size. A smooth sphere has the smallest surface-to-volume ratio possible for a given volume. Many large cells, although roughly spherical, have highly convoluted surfaces (Fig. 2–3a), creating larger surface areas for the same volume and thus facilitating the uptake of fuels and nutrients and release of waste products to the surrounding medium. Other large cells (neurons, for example) have large surface-to-volume ratios because they are long and thin, star-shaped, or highly branched (Fig. 2–3b), rather than spherical.
Because all living cells have evolved from the same progenitors, they share certain fundamental similarities. Careful biochemical study of just a few cells, however different in biochemical details and varied in superficial appearance, ought to yield general principles applicable to all cells and organisms. The burgeoning knowledge in biology in the past 150 years has supported these propositions over and over again. Certain cells, tissues, and organisms have proved more amenable to experimental studies than others. Knowledge in biochemistry, and much of the information in this book, continues to be derived from a few representative tissues and organisms, such as the bacterium Escherichia coli, the yeast Saccharomyces, photosynthetic algae, spinach leaves, the rat liver, and the skeletal muscle of several different vertebrates.
In the isolation of enzymes and other cellular components, it is ideal if the experimenter can begin with a plentiful and homogeneous source of the material. The component of interest (such as an enzyme or nucleic acid) often represents only a miniscule fraction of the total material, and many grams of starting material are needed to obtain a few micrograms of the purified component. Certain types of physical and chemical studies of biomolecules are precluded if only microgram quantities of the pure substance are available. A homogeneous source of an enzyme or nucleic acid, in which all of the cells are genetically and biochemically identical, leaves no doubt about which cell type yielded the purified component, and makes it safer to extrapolate the results of in vitro studies to the situation in vivo. A large culture of bacterial or protistan cells (E. coli, Saccharomyces, or Chlamydomonas, for example), all derived by division from the same parent and therefore genetically identical, meets the requirement for a plentiful and homogeneous source. Individual tissues from laboratory animals (rat liver, pig brain, rabbit muscle) are plentiful sources of similar, though not identical; cells. Some animal and plant cells proliferate in cell culture, producing populations of identical (cloned) cells in quantities suitable for biochemical analysis.
Genetic mutants, in which a defect in a single gene produces a specific functional defect in the cell or organism, are extremely useful in establishing that a certain cellular component is essential to a particular cellular function. Because it is technically much simpler to produce and detect mutants in bacteria and yeast, these organisms (E. coli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae, for example) have been favorite experimental targets for biochemical geneticists.
An organism that is easy to culture in the laboratory, with a short generation time, offers significant advantages to the research biochemist. An organism that requires only a few simple precursor molecules in its growth medium can be cultured in the presence of a radioisotopically labeled precursor, and the metabolic fate of that precursor can then be conveniently traced by following the incorporation of the radioactive atoms into its metabolic products. The short generation time (minutes or hours) of microorganisms allows the investigator to follow a labeled precursor or a genetic defect through many generations in a few days. In higher organisms with generation times of months or years, this is virtually impossible.
Some highly specialized tissues of multicellular organisms are
Sometimes simplicity of structure or function makes a particular cell or organism attractive as an experimental system. For studies of plasma membrane structure and function, the mature erythrocyte (red blood cell) has been a favorite; it has no internal membranes to complicate purification of the plasma membrane. Some bacterial viruses (bacteriophages) have few genes. Their DNA molecules are therefore smaller and much simpler than those of humans or corn plants, and it has proved easier to study replication in these viruses than in human or corn chromosomes.
The biochemical description of living cells in this book is a composite, based on studies of many types of cells. The biochemist must always exercise caution in generalizing from results obtained in studies of selected cells, tissues, and organisms, and in relating what is observed in vitro to what happens within the living cell.
Evolution and Structure of Prokaryotic Cells
All of the organisms alive today are believed to have evolved from ancient, unicellular progenitors. Two large groups of extant prokaryotes evolved from these early forms: archaebacteria (Greek, arché, "origin") and eubacteria. Eubacteria inhabit the soil, surface waters, and the tissues of other living or decaying organisms. Most common and well-studied bacteria, including E. coli and the cyanobacteria (formerly called blue-green algae), are eubacteria. The archaebacteria are more recently discovered and less well studied. They inhabit more extreme environments – salt brines, hot acid springs, bogs, and the deep regions of the ocean.
Within each of these two large groups of bacteria are subgroups distinguished by the habitats to which they are best adapted. In some habitats there is a plentiful supply of oxygen, and the resident organisms live by aerobic metabolism; their catabolic processes ultimately result in the transfer of electrons from fuel molecules to oxygen. Other environments are virtually devoid of oxygen, forcing resident organisms to conduct their catabolic business without it. Many of the organisms that have evolved in these anaerobic environments are obligate anaerobes; they die when exposed to oxygen.
All organisms, including bacteria, can be classified as either chemotrophs (those obtaining their energy from a chemical fuel) or phototrophs (those using sunlight as their primary energy source). Certain organisms can synthesize some or all of their monomeric subunits, metabolic intermediates, and macromolecules from very simple starting materials such as CO2 and NH3; these are the autotrophs. Others must acquire some of their nutrients from the environment preformed (by autotrophic organisms, for example); these are heterotrophs. There are therefore four general modes of obtaining fuel and energy, and four general groups of organisms distinguished by these
As shown in Figure 2–5, the earliest cells probably arose about 3.5 billion (3.5 x 109) years ago in the rich mixture of organic compounds, the "primordial soup", of prebiotic times; they were almost certainly chemoheterotrophs. The organic compounds were originally synthesized from such components of the early earth’s atmosphere as CO, CO2, N2, and CH4 by the nonbiological actions of volcanic heat and lightning (Chapter 3). Primitive heterotrophs gradually acquired the capability to derive energy from certain compounds in their environment and to use that energy to synthesize more and more of their own precursor molecules, thereby becoming less dependent on outside sources of these molecules – less extremely heterotrophic. A very significant evolutionary event was the development of pigments capable of capturing visible light from the sun and using the energy to reduce or "fix" CO2 into more complex organic compounds. The original electron (hydrogen) donor for these photosynthetic organisms was probably H2S, yielding elemental sulfur as the byproduct, but at some point cells developed the enzymatic capacity to use H2O as the electron donor in photosynthetic reactions, producing O2. The cyanobacteria are the modern descendants of these early photosynthetic O2 producers.
The atmosphere of the earth in the earliest stages of biological evolution was nearly devoid of O2, and the earliest cells were therefore anaerobic. With the rise of O2-producing photosynthetic cells, the earth’s atmosphere became progressively richer in O2, allowing the evolution of aerobic organisms, which obtained energy by passing electrons from fuel molecules to O2 (that is, by oxidizing organic compounds). Because electron transfers involving O2 yield energy (they are very exergonic; see Chapter 1), aerobic organisms enjoyed an energetic advantage over their anaerobic counterparts when both competed in an environment containing O2. This advantage translated into the predominance of aerobic organisms in O2-rich environments.
Modern bacteria inhabit almost every ecological niche in the biosphere, and there are bacterial species capable of using virtually every type of organic compound as a source of carbon and energy. Perhaps three-fourths of all the living matter on the earth consists of microscopic organisms, most of them bacteria.
Bacteria play an important role in the biological exchanges of matter and energy. Photosynthetic bacteria in both fresh and marine waters trap solar energy and use it to generate carbohydrates and other cell materials, which are in turn used as food by other forms of life. Some bacteria can capture molecular nitrogen (N2) from the atmosphere and use it to form biologically useful nitrogenous compounds, a process known as nitrogen fixation. Because animals and most plants cannot do this, bacteria form the starting point of many food chains in the biosphere. They also participate as ultimate consumers, degrading the organic structures of dead plants and animals and recycling the end products to the environment.
Bacterial cells share certain common structural features, but also show group-specific specializations (Fig. 2–6). E. coli is a usually harmless inhabitant of the intestinal tract of human beings and many other mammals. The E. coli cell is about 2 μm long and a little less than 1 μm in diameter. It has a protective outer membrane and an inner plasma membrane that encloses the cytoplasm and the nucleoid. Between the inner and outer membranes is a thin but strong layer of peptidoglycans (sugar polymers cross-linked by amino acids), which gives the cell its shape and rigidity. The plasma membrane and the layers outside it constitute the cell envelope. Differences in the cell envelope account for the different affinities for the dye Gentian violet, which is the basis for Gram’s stain; gram-positive bacteria retain the dye, and gram-negative bacteria do not. The outer membrane of E. coli, like that of other gram-negative eubacteria, is similar to the plasma membrane in structure but is different in composition. In gram-positive bacteria (Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus, for example) there is no outer membrane, and the peptidoglycan layer surrounding the plasma membrane is much thicker than that in gram-negative bacteria. The plasma membranes of eubacteria consist of a thin bilayer of lipid molecules penetrated by proteins. Archaebacterial membranes have a similar architecture, although their lipids differ from those of the eubacteria.
The plasma membrane contains proteins capable of transporting certain ions and compounds into the cell and carrying products and waste out. Also in the plasma membrane of most eubacteria are electron-carrying proteins (cytochromes) essential in the formation of ATP from ADP (Chapter 1). In the photosynthetic bacteria, internal membranes derived from the plasma membrane contain chlorophyll and other light-trapping pigments.
From the outer membrane of E. coli cells and some other eubacteria protrude short, hairlike structures called pili, by which cells adhere to the surfaces of other cells. Strains of E. coli and other motile bacteria have one or more long flagella, which can propel the bacterium through its aqueous surroundings. Bacterial flagella are thin, rigid, helical rods, 10 to 20 nm thick. They are attached to a protein structure that spins in the plane of the cell surface, rotating the flagellum.
The cytoplasm of E. coli contains about 15,000 ribosomes, thousands of copies of each of several thousand different enzymes, numerous metabolites and cofactors, and a variety of inorganic ions. Under some conditions, granules of polysaccharides or droplets of lipid accumulate. The nucleoid contains a single, circular molecule of DNA. Although the DNA molecule of an E. coli cell is almost 1,000 times longer
There is a primitive division of labor within the bacterial cell. The cell envelope regulates the flow of materials into and out of the cell, and protects the cell from noxious environmental agents. The plasma membrane and the cytoplasm contain a variety of enzymes essential to energy metabolism and the synthesis of precursor molecules; the ribosomes manufacture proteins; and the nucleoid stores and transmits genetic information. Most bacteria lead existences that are nearly independent of other cells, but some bacterial species tend to associate in clusters or filaments, and a few (the myxobacteria, for example) demonstrate primitive social behavior. Only eukaryotic cells, however, form true multicellular organisms with a division of labor among cell types.
Fossils older than 1.5 billion years are limited to those from small and relatively simple organisms, similar in size and shape to modern prokaryotes. Starting about 1.5 billion years ago, the fossil record begins to show evidence of larger and more complex organisms, probably the earliest eukaryotic cells (see Fig. 2–5). Details of the evolutionary path from prokaryotes to eukaryotes cannot be deduced from the fossil record alone, but morphological and biochemical comparison of modern organisms has suggested a reasonable sequence of events consistent with the fossil evidence.
Three major changes must have occurred as prokaryotes gave rise to eukaryotes (Fig. 2–7). First, as cells acquired more DNA (Table 2–1), mechanisms evolved to fold it compactly into discrete complexes with specific proteins and to divide it equally between daughter cells at cell division. These DNA-protein complexes, chromosomes, (Greek chroma, "color" and soma, "body"), become especially compact at the time of cell division, when they can be visualized with the light microscope as threads of chromatin. Second, as cells became larger, a system of intracellular membranes developed, including a double membrane surrounding the DNA. This membrane segregated the nuclear process of RNA synthesis using a DNA template from the cytoplasmic process of protein synthesis on ribosomes. Finally, primitive eukaryotic cells, which were incapable of photosynthesis or of aerobic metabolism, pooled their assets with those of aerobic bacteria or photosynthetic bacteria to form symbiotic associations that became permanent. Some aerobic bacteria evolved into the mitochondria of modern eukaryotes, and some photosynthetic cyanobacteria became the chloroplasts of modern plant cells. Prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells are compared in Table 2–2.
With the rise of primitive eukaryotic cells, further evolution led to a tremendous diversity of unicellular eukaryotic organisms (protists). Some of these (those with chloroplasts) resembled modern photosynthetic protists such as Euglena and Chlamydomonas; other, nonphotosynthetic protists were more like Paramecium or Dictyostelium. Unicellular eukaryotes are abundant, and the cells of all multicellular animals, plants, and fungi are eukaryotic; there are only a few thousand prokaryotic species, but millions of species of eukaryotic organisms.
Typical eukaryotic cells (Fig. 2–8) are much larger than prokaryotic cells – commonly 10 to 30 μm in diameter, with cell volumes 1,000 to 10,000 times larger than those of bacteria. The distinguishing characteristic of eukaryotes is the nucleus with a complex internal structure, surrounded by a double membrane. The other striking difference between eukaryotes and prokaryotes is that eukaryotes contain a number of other membrane-bounded organelles. The following sections describe the structures and roles of the components of eukaryotic cells in more detail.
The external surface of a cell is in contact with other cells, the extracellular fluid, and the solutes, nutrient molecules, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antigens in that fluid. The plasma membranes of all cells contain a variety of transporters, proteins that span the width of the membrane and carry nutrients into and waste products out of the cell. Cells also have surface membrane proteins (signal receptors) that present highly specific binding sites for extracellular signaling molecules (receptor ligands). When an external ligand binds to its specific receptor, the receptor protein transduces the signal carried by that ligand into an intracellular message (Fig. 2–9). For example, some surface receptors are associated with ion channels that open when the receptor is occupied; others span the membrane and activate or inhibit cellular enzymes on the inner membrane surface. Whatever the mode of signal transduction, surface receptors characteristically act as signal amplifiers – a single ligand molecule bound to a single receptor may cause the flux of thousands of ions through an opened channel, or the synthesis of thousands of molecules of an intracellular messenger molecule by an activated enzyme.
Some surface receptors recognize ligands of low molecular weight, and others recognize macromolecules. For example, binding of acetylcholine (Mr 146) to its receptor begins a cascade of cellular events that underlie the transmission of signals for muscle contraction. Blood proteins (Mr > 20,000) that carry lipids (lipoproteins) are recognized by specific cell surface receptors and then transported into the cells. Antigens (proteins, viruses, or bacteria, recognized by the immune system as foreign) bind to specific receptors and trigger the production of antibodies. During the development of multicellular organisms, neighboring cells influence each other’s developmental paths, as signal molecules from one cell type react with receptors of other cells. Thus the surface membrane of a cell is a complex mosaic of different kinds of highly specific "molecular antennae" through which cells receive, amplify, and react to external signals.
Most cells of higher plants have a cell wall outside the plasma membrane (Fig. 2–8b), which serves as a rigid, protective shell. The cell wall, composed of cellulose and other carbohydrate polymers, is thick but porous. It allows water and small molecules to pass readily, but swelling of the cell due to the accumulation of water is resisted by the rigidity of the wall.
Endocytosis is a mechanism for transporting components of the surrounding medium deep into the cytoplasm. In this process (Fig. 2–10), a region of the plasma membrane invaginates, enclosing a small volume of extracellular fluid within a bud that pinches off inside the cell by membrane fission. The resulting small vesicle (endosome) can move into the interior of the cell, delivering its contents to another organelle bounded by a single membrane (a lysosome, for example; see p. 34) by fusion of the two membranes. The endosome thus serves as an intracellular extension of the plasma membrane, effectively allowing intimate contact between components of the extracellular medium and regions deep within the cytoplasm, which could not be reached by diffusion alone. Phagocytosis is a special case of endocytosis, in which the material carried into the cell (within a phagosome) is particulate, such as a cell fragment or even another, smaller cell. The inverse of endocytosis is exocytosis (Fig. 2–10), in which a vesicle in the cytoplasm moves to the inside surface of the plasma membrane and fuses with it, releasing the vesicular contents outside the membrane. Many proteins destined for secretion into the extracellular space are released by exocytosis after being packaged into secretory vesicles.
The small transport vesicles moving to and from the plasma membrane in exocytosis and endocytosis are parts of a dynamic system of intracellular membranes (Fig. 2–10), which includes the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi complexes, the nuclear envelope, and a variety of small vesicles such as lysosomes and peroxisomes. Although generally represented as discrete and static elements, these structures are in fact in constant flux, with membrane vesicles continually budding from one of the structures and moving to and merging with another.
The endoplasmic reticulum is a highly convoluted, three-dimensional network of membrane-enclosed spaces extending throughout the cytoplasm and enclosing a subcellular compartment (the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum) separate from the cytoplasm. The many flattened branches (cisternae) of this compartment are continuous with each other and with the nuclear envelope. In cells specialized for the secretion of proteins into the extracellular space, such as the pancreatic cells that secrete the hormone insulin, the endoplasmic reticulum is particularly prominent. The ribosomes that synthesize proteins destined for export attach to the outer (cytoplasmic) surface of the endoplasmic reticulum, and the secretory proteins are passed through the membrane into the lumen as they are synthesized. Proteins destined for sequestration within lysosomes, or for insertion into the nuclear or plasma membranes, are also synthesized on ribosomes attached to the endoplasmic reticulum. By contrast, proteins that will remain and function within the cytosol are synthesized on cytoplasmic ribosomes unassociated with the endoplasmic reticulum.
The attachment of thousands of ribosomes (usually in regions of large cisternae) gives the rough endoplasmic reticulum its granular appearance (Fig. 2–10) and thus its name. In other regions of the cell, the endoplasmic reticulum is free of ribosomes. This smooth endoplasmic reticulum, which is physically continuous with the rough
The endomembrane system is dynamic; newly synthesized proteins move into the lumen of the rough endoplasmic reticulum and thus to the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, then to the Golgi complex via transport vesicles. In the Golgi complex, molecular "addresses" are added to specific proteins to direct them to the cell surface, lysosomes, or secretory vesicles. The contents of secretory vesicles are released from the cell by exocytosis. Endocytosis and phagocytosis bring extracellular materials into the cell. Fusion of endosomes (or phagosomes) with lysosomes, which are full of digestive enzymes, results in the degradation of the extracellular materials.
Nearly all eukaryotic cells have characteristic clusters of membrane vesicles called dictyosomes. Several connected dictyosomes constitute a Golgi complex. A Golgi complex (also called Golgi apparatus) is most commonly seen as a stack of flattened membrane vesicles (cisternae) (Fig. 2–10). Near the ends of these cisternae are numerous, much smaller, spherical vesicles (transport vesicles) that bud off the edges of the cisternae.
The Golgi complex is asymmetric, structurally and functionally. The cis side faces the rough endoplasmic reticulum, and the trans side, the plasma membrane; between these are the medial elements. Proteins, during their synthesis on ribosomes bound to the rough endoplasmic reticulum, are inserted into the interior (lumen) of the cisternae. Small membrane vesicles containing the newly synthesized proteins bud from the endoplasmic reticulum and move to the Golgi complex, fusing with the cis side. As the proteins pass through the Golgi complex to the trans side, enzymes in the complex modify the protein molecules by adding sulfate, carbohydrate, or lipid moieties to side chains of certain amino acids. One of the functions of this modification of a newly synthesized protein is to "address" it to its proper destination as it leaves the Golgi complex in a transport vesicle budding from the trans side. Certain proteins are enclosed in secretory vesicles, eventually to be released from the cell by exocytosis. Others are targeted for intracellular organelles such as lysosomes, or for incorporation into the plasma membrane during cell growth.
Lysosomes, found in the cytoplasm of animal cells, are spherical vesicles bounded by a single membrane. They are usually about 1 μm in diameter, about the size of a small bacterium (Fig. 2–10). Lysosomes contain enzymes capable of digesting proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids, and lipids. They function as cellular recycling centers for complex molecules brought into the cell by endocytosis, fragments of foreign cells brought in by phagocytosis, or worn-out organelles from the cell’s own cytoplasm. These materials selectively enter the lysosomes by fusion of the lysosomal membrane with endosomes, phagosomes, or defective organelles, and are then degraded to their simple components (amino acids, monosaccharides, fatty acids, etc.), which are released into the cytosol to be recycled into new cellular components or further catabolized.
The degradative enzymes within lysosomes would be harmful if not confined by the lysosomal membrane; they would be free to act on all cellular components. The lysosomal compartment is more acidic (pH ≤ 5) than the cytoplasm (pH ≈ 7); the acidity is due to the action of an ATP-fueled proton pump in the lysosomal membrane. Lysosomal enzymes are much less active at pH 7 than at pH ≤ 5, which provides a second line of defense against destruction of cytosolic macromolecules, should these enzymes escape into the cytosol.
Plant cells do not have organelles identical to lysosomes, but their vacuoles carry out similar degradative reactions as well as other functions
Some of the oxidative reactions in the breakdown of amino acids and fats produce free radicals and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), very reactive chemical species that could damage cellular machinery. To protect the cell from these destructive byproducts, such reactions are segregated within small membrane-bounded vesicles called peroxisomes. The hydrogen peroxide is degraded by catalase, an enzyme present in large quantities in peroxisomes and glyoxysomes; it catalyzes the reaction 2H2O2 → 2H2O + O2.
The eukaryotic nucleus is very complex in both its structure and its biological activity, compared with the relatively simple nucleoid of prokaryotes. The nucleus contains nearly all of the cell’s DNA, typically 1,000 times more than is present in a bacterial cell; a small amount of DNA is also present in mitochondria and chloroplasts. The nucleus is surrounded by a nuclear envelope, composed of two membranes separated by a narrow space and continuous with the rough endoplasmic reticulum (Fig. 2–12; see also Fig. 2–10). At intervals the two nuclear membranes are pinched together around openings (nuclear pores), which have a diameter of about 90 nm. Associated with the pores are protein structures (nuclear pore complexes), specific macromolecule transporters that allow only certain molecules to pass between the cytoplasm and the aqueous phase of the nucleus (the nucleoplasm), such as enzymes synthesized in the cytoplasm and required in the nucleoplasm for DNA replication, transcription, or repair. Messenger RNA precursors and associated proteins also pass out of the nucleus through the nuclear pore complexes, to be translated on ribosomes in the cytoplasm; the nucleoplasm contains no ribosomes.
Before division of the cell (cytokinesis), nuclear division (mitosis) occurs. The chromatin condenses into discrete bodies, the chromosomes (Fig. 2–13). Cells of each species have a characteristic number of chromosomes with specific sizes and shapes. The protist Tetrahymena has 4; cabbage has 20, humans have 46, and the plant Ophioglossum, about 1,250! Usually each cell has two copies of each chromosome; such cells are called diploid. Gametes (egg and sperm, for example) produced by meiosis (Chapter 24) have only one copy of each chromosome and are called haploid. During sexual reproduction, two haploid gametes combine to regenerate a diploid cell in which each chromosome pair consists of a maternal and a paternal chromosome.
Chromosomes and chromatin are composed of DNA and a family of positively charged proteins, histones, which associate strongly with DNA by ionic interactions with its many negatively charged phosphate groups. About half of the mass of chromatin is DNA and half is histones. When DNA replicates prior to cell division, large quantities of histones are also synthesized to maintain this 1:1 ratio. The histones and DNA associate in complexes called nucleosomes, in which the DNA strand winds around a core of histone molecules (Fig. 2–13). The DNA of a single human chromosome forms about a million nucleosomes; nucleosomes associate to form very regalar and compact supramolecular complexes. The resulting chromatin fibers, about 30 nm in diameter, condense further by forming a series of looped regions, which cluster with adjacent looped regions to form the chromosomes visible during cell division. This tight packing of DNA into nucleosomes achieves a remarkable condensation of the DNA molecules. The DNA in the chromosomes of a single diploid human cell would have a combined length of about 2 m if fully stretched as a DNA double helix, but the combined length of all 46 chromosomes is only about 200 nm.
Mitochondria (singular, mitochondrion) are very conspicuous in the cytoplasm of most eukaryotic cells (Fig. 2–15). These membrane-bounded organelles vary in size, but typically have a diameter of about 1 μm, similar to that of bacterial cells. Mitochondria also vary widely in shape, number, and location, depending on the cell type or tissue function. Most plant and animal cells contain several hundred to a thousand mitochondria. Generally, cells in more metabolically active tissues devote a larger proportion of their volume to mitochondria.
Each mitochondrion has two membranes. The outer membrane is unwrinkled and completely surrounds the organelle. The inner membrane has infoldings called cristae, which give it a large surface area. The inner compartment of mitochondria, the matrix, is a very concentrated aqueous solution of many enzymes and chemical intermediates involved in energy-yielding metabolism. Mitochondria contain many enzymes that together catalyze the oxidation of organic nutrients by molecular oxygen (O2); some of these enzymes are in the matrix and some are embedded in the inner membrane. The chemical energy released in mitochondrial oxidations is used to generate ATP, the major energy-carrying molecule of cells. In aerobic cells, mitochondria are the
Unlike other membranous structures such as lysosomes, Golgi complexes, and the nuclear envelope, mitochondria are produced only by division of previously existing mitochondria; each mitochondrion contains its own DNA, RNA, and ribosomes. Mitochondrial DNA codes for certain proteins specific to the mitochondrial inner membrane, but other mitochondrial proteins are encoded in nuclear DNA. This and other evidence supports the theory that mitochondria are the descendants of aerobic bacteria that lived symbiotically with early eukaryotic cells.
Plastids are specialized organelles in the cytoplasm of plants; they have two surrounding membranes. Most conspicuous of the plastids and characteristically present in all green plant cells and eukaryotic algae are the chloroplasts (Fig. 2–16). Like mitochondria, the chloroplasts may be considered power plants, with the important difference that chloroplasts use solar energy, whereas mitochondria use the chemical energy of oxidizable molecules. Pigment molecules in chloroplasts absorb the energy of light and use it to make ATP and, ultimately, to reduce carbon dioxide to form carbohydrates such as starch and sucrose. The photosynthetic process in eukaryotes and in cyanobacteria produces O2 as a byproduct of the light-capturing reactions. Photosynthetic plant cells contain both chloroplasts and mitochondria. Chloroplasts transduce energy only in the light, but mitochondria function independently of light, oxidizing carbohydrates generated by photosynthesis during daylight hours.
Chloroplasts are generally larger (diameter 5 μm) than mitochondria and occur in many different shapes. Because chloroplasts contain a high concentration of the pigment chlorophyll, photosynthetic cells are usually green, but their color depends on the relative amounts of other pigments present. These pigment molecules, which together can absorb light energy over much of the visible spectrum, are localized in the internal membranes of the chloroplast, which form stacks of closed cisternae known as thylakoids (Fig. 2–16). Like mitochondria, chloroplasts contain DNA, RNA, and ribosomes. Chloroplasts appear to have had their evolutionary origin in symbiotic ancestors of the cyanobacteria.
Several independent lines of evidence suggest that the mitochondria and chloroplasts of modern eukaryotes were derived during evolution from aerobic bacteria and cyanobacteria that took up endosymbiotic residence in early eukaryotic cells (Fig. 2–17; see also Fig. 2–7). Mitochondria are always derived from preexisting mitochondria, and chloroplasts from chloroplasts, by simple fission, just as bacteria multiply by fission. Mitochondria and chloroplasts are in fact semiautonomous; they contain DNA, ribosomes, and the enzymatic machinery to synthesize proteins encoded in their DNA. Sequences in mitochondrial DNA are strikingly similar to sequences in certain aerobic bacteria, and chloroplast DNA shows strong sequence homology with the DNA of certain cyanobacteria. The ribosomes found in mitochondria and chloroplasts are more similar in size, overall structure, and ribosomal RNA sequences to those of bacteria than to those in the cytoplasm of the eukaryotic cell. The enzymes that catalyze protein synthesis in these organelles also resemble those of the bacteria more closely.
Several types of protein filaments visible with the electron microscope crisscross the eukaryotic cell, forming an interlocking three-dimensional meshwork throughout the cytoplasm, the cytoskeleton. There are three general types of cytoplasmic filaments: actin filaments, microtubules, and intermediate filaments (Fig. 2–18). They differ in width (from about 6 to 22 nm), composition, and specific function, but all apparently provide structure and organization to the cytoplasm and shape to the cell. Actin filaments and microtubules also help to produce the motion of organelles or of the whole cell.
Each of the cytoskeletal components is composed of simple protein subunits that polymerize to form filaments of uniform thickness. These filaments are not permanent structures; they undergo constant disassembly into their monomeric subunits and reassembly into filaments. Their locations in cells are not rigidly fixed, but may change dramatically with mitosis, cytokinesis, or changes in cell shape. All types of filaments associate with other proteins that cross-link filaments to themselves or to other filaments, influence assembly or disassembly, or move cytoplasmic organelles along the filaments.
Actin is a protein present in virtually all eukaryotes, from the protists to the vertebrates. In the presence of ATP, the monomeric protein spontaneously associates into linear, helical polymers, 6 to 7 nm in diameter, called actin filaments or microfilaments (Fig. 2–19).
The importance of actin polymerization and depolymerization is clear from the effects of cytochalasins, compounds that bind to actin and block polymerization. Cells treated with a cytochalasin lose actin filaments and their ability to carry out cytokinesis, phagocytosis, and amoeboid movement. However, chromatid separation at mitosis is not affected, ruling out an essential role for actin in this process. Compounds such as cytochalasins, which are naturally occurring poisons or specific toxins, are often very helpful in experimental studies in pinpointing the important participants in a biological process.
Cells contain proteins that bind to actin monomers or filaments and influence the state of actin aggregation (Fig. 2–19). Filamin and fodrin cross-link actin filaments to each other, stabilizing the meshwork and greatly increasing the viscosity of the medium in which the filaments are suspended; a concentrated solution of actin in the presence of filamin is a gel too viscous to pour. Large numbers of actin filaments bound to specific plasma membrane proteins lie just beneath and more or less parallel to the plasma membrane, conferring shape and rigidity on the cell surface.
Actin filaments bind to a family of proteins called myosins, enzymes that use the energy of ATP breakdown to move themselves along the actin filament in one direction. The simplest members of this family, such as myosin I, have a globular head and a short tail (Fig. 2–20). The
A larger form of myosin is found in muscle cells, and also in the cytoplasm of many nonmuscle cells. This type of myosin also has a globular head that binds to and moves along actin filaments in an ATP-driven reaction, but it has a longer tail, which permits myosin molecules to associate side by side to form thick filaments (see Fig. 7–31). Contractile systems composed of actin and myosin occur in a wide variety of organisms, from slime molds to humans. Actin–myosin complexes form the contractile ring that squeezes the cytoplasm in two during cytokinesis in all eukaryotes. In multicellular animals, muscle cells are filled with highly organized arrays of actin (thin) filaments and myosin (thick) filaments, which produce a coordinated contractile force by ATP-driven sliding of actin filaments past stationary myosin filaments.
Like actin filaments, microtubules form spontaneously from their monomeric subunits, but the polymeric structure of microtubules is slightly more complex. Dimers of α- and β-tubulin form linear polymers (protofilaments), 13 of which associate side by side to form the hollow microtubule, about 22 nm in diameter (Fig. 2–21). Most microtubules undergo continual polymerization and depolymerization in cells by addition of tubulin subunits primarily at one end and dissociation at the other. Microtubules are present throughout the cytoplasm, but are concentrated in specific regions at certain times. For example, when sister chromatids move to opposite poles of a dividing cell during mitosis, a highly organized array of microtubules (the mitotic spindle; Fig. 2–14) provides the framework and probably the motive force for the separation of chromatids. Colchicine, a poisonous alkaloid from meadow saffron, prevents tubulin polymerization. Colchicine treatment reversibly blocks the movement of chromatids during mitosis, demonstrating that microtubules are required for this process.
Microtubules, like actin filaments, associate with a variety of proteins that move along them, form cross-bridges, or influence their state of polymerization. Kinesin and cytoplasmic dynein, proteins found in the cytoplasm of many cells, bind to microtubules and move along them using the energy of ATP to drive their motion (Fig. 2–22). Each protein is capable of associating with specific organelles and pulling them along the microtubule over long distances at rates of about 1μm/s. The beating motion of cilia and eukaryotic flagella also involves dynein and microtubules.
Cilia and flagella, motile structures extending from the surface of many protists and certain cells of animals and plants, are all constructed on the same microtubule-based architectural plan (Fig. 2–23). (Although they bear the same name, the flagella of bacteria (p. 28) are completely different in structure and in action from the flagella of eukaryotes.) Eukaryotic cilia and flagella, which are sheathed in an extension of the plasma membrane, contain nine fused pairs of microtubules arranged around two central microtubules (the 9 + 2 arrangement; Fig. 2–23). Ciliary and flagellar motion results from the coordinated sliding of outer doublet microtubules relative to their neighbors, driven by ATP. The motions of cilia and flagella propel protists through their surrounding medium, in search of food, or light, or some condition essential to their survival. Sperm are also propelled by flagellar beating. Ciliated cells in tissues such as the trachea and oviduct move extracellular fluids past the surface of the ciliated tissue.
The contraction of skeletal muscle, the propelling action of cilia and flagella, and the intracellular transport of organelles all rely on the same fundamental mechanism: the splitting of ATP by proteins such as kinesin, myosin, and dynein drives sliding motion along microfilaments or microtubules.
The third type of cytoplasmic filament is a family of structures with dimensions (diameter 8 to 10 nm) intermediate between actin filaments and microtubules. Several different types of monomeric protein subunits form intermediate filaments. Some cells contain large amounts of one type; some types of intermediate filament are absent from certain cells; and some cell types apparently lack intermediate filaments altogether. As is the case for actin filaments and microtubules, intermediate filament formation is reversible, and the cytoplasmic distribution of these structures is subject to regulated changes.
The function of intermediate filaments is probably to provide internal mechanical support for the cell and to position its organelles. Vimentin (Mr 57,000) is the monomeric subunit of the intermediate filaments found in the endothelial cells that line blood vessels, and in adipocytes (fat cells). Vimentin fibers appear to anchor the nucleus and fat droplets in specific cellular locations. Intermediate filaments composed of desmin (Mr 55,000) hold the Z disks of striated muscle tissue in place. Neurofilaments are constructed of three different protein subunits (Mr 70,000, 150,000, and 210,000), and provide rigidity to the long extensions (axons) of neurons. In the glial cells that surround neurons, intermediate filaments are constructed from glial fibrillary acidic protein (Mr 50,000).
The intermediate filaments composed of keratins, a family of structural proteins, are particularly prominent in certain epidermal cells of vertebrates, and form covalently cross-linked meshworks that persist even after the cell dies. Hair, fingernails, and feathers are among the structures composed primarily of keratins.
The picture that emerges from this brief survey is of a eukaryotic cell with a cytoplasm crisscrossed by a meshwork of structural fibers, throughout which extends a complex system of membrane-bounded compartments (see Fig. 2–8). Both the filaments and the organelles are dynamic: the filaments disassemble and reassemble elsewhere; membranous vesicles bud from one organelle, move to and join another. Transport vesicles, mitochondria, chloroplasts, and other organelles move through the cytoplasm along protein filaments, drawn by kinesin, cytoplasmic dynein, myosin, and perhaps other similar proteins. Exocytosis and endocytosis provide paths between the cell interior and the surrounding medium, allowing for the secretion of proteins and other components produced within the cell and the uptake of extracellular components. The intracellular membrane systems segregate specific metabolic processes, and provide surfaces on which certain enzyme-catalyzed reactions occur.
Although complex, this organization of the cytoplasm is far from random. The motion and positioning of organelles and cytoskeletal elements are under tight regulation, and at certain stages in a eukaryotic cell’s life, dramatic, finely orchestrated reorganizations occur, such as spindle formation, chromatid migration to the poles, and nuclear envelope disintegration and re-formation during mitosis. The interactions between the cytoskeleton and organelles are noncovalent, reversible, and subject to regulation in response to various intracellular and extracellular signals. Cytoskeletal rearrangements are modulated by Ca2+ and by a variety of proteins.
A major advance in the biochemical study of cells was the development of methods for separating organelles from the cytosol and from each other. In a typical cellular fractionation, cells or tissues are disrupted by gentle homogenization in a medium containing sucrose (about 0.2 M). This treatment ruptures the plasma membrane but leaves most of the organelles intact. (The sucrose creates a medium with an osmotic pressure similar to that within organelles; this prevents diffusion of water into the organelles, which would cause them to swell, burst, and spill their contents.)
Organelles such as nuclei, mitochondria, and lysosomes differ in size and therefore sediment at different rates during centrifugation. They also differ in specific gravity, and they "float" at different levels in a density gradient (Fig. 2–24). Differential centrifugation results in a rough fractionation of the cytoplasmic contents, which may be further purified by isopycnic centrifugation. In this procedure, organelles of different buoyant densities (the result of different ratios of lipid and protein in each type of organelle) are separated on a density gradient. By carefully removing material from each region of the gradient and observing it with a microscope, the biochemist can establish the position of each organelle and obtain purified organelles for further study. In this way it was established, for example, that lysosomes contain degradative enzymes, mitochondria contain oxidative enzymes, and chloroplasts contain photosynthetic pigments. The isolation of an organelle enriched in a certain enzyme is often the first step in the purification of that enzyme.
One of the most effective approaches to understanding a biological process is to study purified individual molecules such as enzymes, nucleic acids, or structural proteins. The purified components are amenable to detailed characterization in vitro; their physical properties and catalytic activities can be studied without "interference" from other molecules present in the intact cell. Although this approach has been remarkably revealing, it must always be remembered that the inside of a
All modern unicellular eukaryotes – the protists – contain the organelles and mechanisms that we have described, indicating that these organelles and mechanisms must have evolved relatively early. The protists are extraordinarily versatile. The ciliated protist Paramecium, for example, moves rapidly through its aqueous surroundings by beating its cilia; senses mechanical, chemical, and thermal stimuli from its environment, and responds by changing its path; finds, engulfs, and digests a variety of food organisms, and excretes the indigestible fragments; eliminates excess water that leaks through its membrane; and finds and mates with sexual partners. Nonetheless, being unicellular has its disadvantages. Paramecia probably live out their lives in a very small region of the pond in which they began life, because their motility is limited by the small thrust of their microscopic cilia, and their ability to detect a better environment at a distance is limited by the short range of their sensory apparatus.
The advantages of cellular specialization led to the evolution of ever more complex and highly differentiated organisms, in which some cells carried out the sensory functions, others the digestive, photosynthetic, or reproductive functions. Many modern multicellular organisms contain hundreds of different cell types, each specialized for some function that supports the entire organism. Fundamental mechanisms that evolved early have been further refined and embellished through evolution. The simple mechanism responsible for the motion of myosin along actin filaments in slime molds has been conserved and elaborated in vertebrate muscle cells, which are literally filled with actin, myosin, and associated proteins that regulate muscle contraction. The same basic structure and mechanism that underlie the beating motion of cilia in Paramecium and flagella in Chlamydomonas are employed by the highly differentiated vertebrate sperm cell. Figure 2–25 illustrates the range of cellular specializations encountered in multicellular organisms.
The individual cells of a multicellular organism remain delimited by their plasma membranes, but they have developed specialized surface structures for attachment to and communication with each other (Fig. 2–26). At tight junctions, the plasma membranes of adjacent cells are closely apposed, with no extracellular fluid separating them. Desmosomes (occurring only in plant cells) hold two cells together; the small extracellular space between them is filled with fibrous, presumably adhesive, material. Gap junctions provide small, reinforced openings between adjacent cells, through which electric currents, ions, and small molecules can pass. In higher plants, plasmodesmata form channels resembling gap junctions; they provide a path through the cell wall for the movement of small molecules between adjacent cells. Each of these junctions is reinforced by membrane proteins or cytoskeletal filaments. The type of junction(s) between neighboring cells varies from tissue to tissue.
Viruses are supramolecular complexes that can replicate themselves in appropriate host cells. They consist of a nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) molecule surrounded by a protective shell, or capsid, made up of protein molecules and, in some cases, a membranous envelope. Viruses exist in two states. Outside the host cells that formed them, viruses are simply nonliving particles called virions, which are regular in size, shape, and composition and can be crystallized. Once a virus or its nucleic acid component gains entry into a specific host cell, it becomes an intracellular parasite. The viral nucleic acid carries the genetic message specifying the structure of the intact virion. It diverts the host cell’s enzymes and ribosomes from their normal cellular roles to the manufacture of many new daughter viral particles. As a result, hundreds of progeny viruses may arise from the single virion that infected the host cell (Fig. 2–27). In some host–virus systems, the progeny virions escape through the host cell’s plasma membrane. Other viruses cause cell lysis (membrane breakdown and host cell death) as they are released.
A different type of response results from some viral infections, in which viral DNA becomes integrated into the host’s chromosome and is replicated with the host’s own genes. Integrated viral genes may have little or no effect on the host’s survival, but they often cause profound changes in the host cell’s appearance and activity.
Hundreds of different viruses are known, each more or less specific for a host cell (Table 2–3), which may be an animal, plant, or bacterial cell. Viruses specific for bacteria are known as bacteriophages, or simply phages (Greek phagein, "to eat"). Some viruses contain only one kind of protein in their capsid – the tobacco mosaic virus, for example, a simple plant virus and the first to be crystallized. Other viruses contain dozens or hundreds of different kinds of proteins. Even some of these large and complex viruses have been crystallized, and their detailed molecular structures are known (Fig. 2–28). Viruses differ greatly in size. Bacteriophage ΦX174, one of the smallest, has a diameter of 18 nm. Vaccinia virus is one of the largest; its virions are almost as large as the smallest bacteria. Viruses also differ in shape and complexity of structure. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (Fig. 2–29) is relatively simple in structure, but devastating in action; it causes AIDS.
Table 2–3 summarizes the type and size of the nucleic acid components of a number of viruses. Some viruses are highly pathogenic in humans; for example, those causing poliomyelitis, influenza, herpes, hepatitis, AIDS, the common cold, infectious mononucleosis, shingles, and certain types of cancer.
Biochemistry has profited enormously from the study of viruses, which has provided new information about the structure of the genome, the enzymatic mechanisms of nucleic acid synthesis, and the regulation of the flow of genetic information.
Cells, the structural and functional units of living organisms, are of microscopic dimensions. Their small size, combined with convolutions of their surfaces, results in high surface-to-volume ratios, facilitating the diffusion of fuels, nutrients, and waste products between the cell and its surroundings. All cells share certain features: DNA containing the genetic information, ribosomes, and a plasma membrane that surrounds the cytoplasm. In eukaryotes the genetic material is surrounded by a nuclear envelope; prokaryotes have no such membrane.
The plasma membrane is a tough, flexible permeability barrier, which contains numerous transporters as well as receptors for a variety of extracellular signals. The cytoplasm consists of the cytosol and organelles. The cytosol is a concentrated solution of proteins, RNA, metabolic intermediates and cofactors, and inorganic ions, in which are suspended various particles. Ribosomes are supramolecular complexes on which protein synthesis occurs; bacterial ribosomes are slightly smaller than those of eukaryotic cells, but are similar in structure and function.
Certain organisms, tissues, and cells offer advantages for biochemical studies. E. coli and yeast can be cultured in large quantities, have short generation times, and are especially amenable to genetic manipulation. The specialized functions of liver, muscle, and fat tissue, and of erythrocytes, make them attractive for the study of specific processes.
The first living cells were prokaryotic and anaerobic; they probably arose about 3.5 billion years ago, when the atmosphere was devoid of oxygen. With the passage of time, biological evolution led to cells capable of photosynthesis, with O2 as a byproduct. As O2 accumulated, prokaryotic cells capable of the aerobic oxidation of fuels evolved. The two major groups of bacteria, eubacteria and archaebacteria, diverged early in evolution. The cell envelope of some types of bacteria includes layers outside the plasma membrane that provide rigidity or protection. Some bacteria have flagella for propulsion. The cytoplasm of bacteria contains no membrane-bounded organelles but does contain ribosomes and granules of nutrients, as well as a nucleoid which contains the cell’s DNA. Some photosynthetic bacteria have extensive intracellular membranes that contain light-capturing pigments.
About 1.5 billion years ago, eukaryotic cells emerged. They were larger than bacteria, and their genetic material was more complex. These early cells established symbiotic relationships with prokaryotes that lived in their cytoplasm; modern mitochondria and chloroplasts are derived from these early endosymbionts. Mitochondria and chloroplasts are intracellular organelles surrounded by a double membrane. They are the principal sites of ATP synthesis in eukaryotic, aerobic cells. Chloroplasts are found only in photosynthetic organisms, but mitochondria are ubiquitous among eukaryotes.
Modern eukaryotic cells have a complex system of intracellular membranes. This endomembrane system consists of the nuclear envelope, rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi complex, transport vesicles, lysosomes, and endosomes. Proteins synthesized on ribosomes bound to the rough endoplasmic reticulum pass into the endomembrane system, traveling through the Golgi complex on their way to organelles or to the cell surface, where they are secreted by exocytosis. Endocytosis brings extracellular materials into the cell, where they can be digested by degradative enzymes in the lysosomes. In plants, the central vacuole is the site of degradative processes; it also serves as a storage depot for a variety of side products of metabolism and maintains cell turgor.
The genetic material in eukaryotic cells is organized into chromosomes, highly ordered complexes of DNA and histone proteins. Before cell division (cytokinesis), each chromosome is replicated, and the duplicate chromosomes are separated by the process of mitosis.
The cytoskeleton is an intracellular meshwork of actin filaments, microtubules, and intermediate filaments of several types. The cytoskeleton confers shape on the cell, and reorganization of cytoskeletal filaments results in the shape changes accompanying amoeboid movement and cell division. Intracellular organelles move along filaments of the cytoskeleton, propelled by proteins such as dynein, kinesin, and myosin, using the energy of ATP. Dynein and tubulin are central to the motion and strncture of cilia and ilagella, and myosin and actin are responsible for the contractile motion of skeletal muscle. The organelles can be separated by differential centrifugation and by isopycnic centrifugation.
In multicellular organisms, there is a division of labor among several types of cells. Individual cells are joined to each other by tight junctions or gap junctions, and (in plants) desmosomes or plasmodesmata. Viruses are parasites of living cells, capable of subverting the cellular machinery for their own replication.
Alberts, B., Bray, D., Lewis, J., Raff, M., Roberts, K., & Watson, J.D. (1989) Molecular Biology of the Cell, 2nd edn, Garland Publishing, Inc., New York. A superb textbook on cell structure and function, covering the topics considered in this chapter, and a useful reference for many of the following chapters.
Becker, W.M. & Deamer, D.W. (1991) The World of the Cell, 2nd edn, The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Redwood City, CA. An excellent introductory textbook of cell biology.
Curtis, H. & Barnes, N.S. (1989) Biology, 5th edn, Worth Publishers, Inc., New York. A beautifully written and illustrated general biology textbook.
Darnell, J., Lodish, H., & Baltimore, D. (1990) Molecular Cell Biology, 2nd edn, Scientific American Books, Inc., New York. Like the book by Alberts and coauthors, a superb text useful for this and later chapters.
Prescott, D.M. (1988) Cells, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Boston, MA. A short, well-illustrated introductory textbook on cell structure and function, with emphasis on structure.
Evolution of Cells
Evolution of Catalytic Function. (1987) Cold Spring Harb. Symp. Quant. Biol. 52. A collection of excellent papers on many aspects of molecular and cellular evolution.
Knoll, A.H. (1991) End of the proterozoic eon. Sci. Am. 265 (October), 64–73. Discussion of the evidence that an increase in atmospheric oxygen led to the development of multi-cellular organisms, including large animals.
Margulis, L. (1992) Symbiosis in Cell Euolution. Microbial Evolution in the Archean and Proterozoic Eons, 2nd edn, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York. Clear discussion of the hypothesis that mitochondria and chloroplasts are descendants of bacteria that became symbiotic with primitive eukaryotic cells.
Schopf, J.W. (1978) The evolution of the earliest cells. Sci. Am. 239 (September), 110–139.
Vidal, G. (1984) The oldest eukaryotic cell. Sci. Am. 250 (February), 48–57.
Structure of Cells and Organelles
Bloom, W. & Fawcett, D.W. (1986) A Textbook of Histology, 11th edn, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, PA. A standard textbook, containing detailed descriptions of the structures of animal cells, tissues, and organs.
de Duve, C. (1984) A Guided Tour of the Living Cell, Scientific American Books, Inc., New York. An easy-to-read, well-illustrated description of the structure and functions of the organelles of the eukaryotic cell.
Margulis, L. & Schwartz, K.V. (1987) Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 2nd edn, W.H. Freeman and Company, New York. Description of unicellular and multicellular organisms, beautifully illustrated with electron micrographs and drawings showing the diversity of structure and function.
Rothman, J.E. (1985) The compartmental organization of the Golgi apparatus. Sci. Am. 253 (September), 74–89.
Gelfand, V. & Bershadsky, A.D. (1991) Microtubule dynamics: mechanism, regulation, and function. Annu. Rev. Cell Biol. 7, (September), 93–116.
Organization of the Cytoplasm. (1981) Cold Spring Harb. Symp. Quant. Biol. 46. More than 90 excellent papers on microtubules, microfilaments, and intermediate filaments and their biological roles.
Schroer, T.A. & Sheetz, M.P. (1991) Functions of microtubule-based motors. Annu. Rev. Physiol. 53, 629–652.
Steinert, P.M. & Parry, D.A.D. (1985) Intermediate filaments: conformity and diversity of expression and structure. Annu. Rev. Cell Biol. 1, 41–65.
Stossel, T.P. (1989) From signal to pseudopod: how cells control cytoplasmic actin assembly. J. Biol. Chem. 264, 18261–18264.
Vale, R.D. (1990) Microtubule-based motor proteins. Curr. Opinion Cell Biol. 2, 15–22.
Vallee, R.B. & Shpetner, H.S. (1990) Motor proteins of cytoplasmic microtubules. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 59, 909–932.
Some problems on the contents of Chapter 2 follow. They involve simple geometrical and numerical relationships concerning cell structure and activities. (For your reference in solving these problems, please see the tables printed on the inside of the back cover.) Each problem has a title for easy reference and discussion.
1. The Size of Cells and Their Components Given their approximate diameters, calculate the approximate number of (a) hepatocytes (diameter 20 μm), (b) mitochondria (1.5 μm), and (c) actin molecules (3.6 nm) that can be placed in a single layer on the head of a pin (diameter 0.5 mm). Assume each structure is spherical. The area of a circle is πr2, where π = 3.14.
2. Number of Solute Molecules in the Smallest Known Cells Mycoplasmas are the smallest known cells. They are spherical and have a diameter of about 0.33 μm. Because of their small size they readily pass through filters designed to trap larger bacteria. One species, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, is the causative organism of the disease primary atypical pneumonia.
(a) D-Glucose is the major energy-yielding nutrient of mycoplasma cells. Its concentration within such cells is about 1 mM. Calculate the number of glucose molecules in a single mycoplasma cell. Avogadro’s number, the number of molecules in 1 mol of a nonionized substance, is 6.02 × 1023. The volume of a sphere is 4πr3/3.
(b) The first enzyme required for the energy-yielding metabolism of glucose is hexokinase (Mr 100,000). Given that the intracellular fluid of mycoplasma cells contains 10 g of hexokinase per liter, calculate the molar concentration of hexokinase.
3. Components of E. coli E. coli cells are rodshaped, about 2 μm long and 0.8 μm in diameter. The volume of a cylinder is πr2h, where h is the height of the cylinder.
(a) If the average density of E. coli (mostly water) is 1.1 × 103 g/L, what is the weight of a single cell?
(b) The protective cell wall of E. coli is 10 nm thick. What percentage of the total volume of the bacterium does the wall occupy?
(c) E. coli is capable of growing and multiplying rapidly because of the inclusion of some 15,000 spherical ribosomes (diameter 18 nm) in each cell, which carry out protein synthesis. What percentage of the total cell volume do the ribosomes occupy?
4. Genetic Information in E. coli DNA The genetic information contained in DNA consists of a linear sequence of successive code words, known as codons. Each codon is a specific sequence of three nucleotides (three nucleotide pairs in doublestranded DNA), and each codon codes for a single amino acid unit in a protein. The molecular weight of an E. coli DNA molecule is about 2.5 × 109. The average molecular weight of a nucleotide pair is 660, and each nucleotide pair contributes 0.34 nm to the length of DNA.
(a) Calculate the length of an E. coli DNA molecule. Compare the length of the DNA molecule with the actual cell dimensions. How does the DNA molecule fit into the cell?
(b) Assume that the average protein in E. coli consists of a chain of 400 amino acids. What is the maximum number of proteins that can be coded by an E. coli DNA molecule?
5. The High Rate of Bacterial Metabolism Bacterial cells have a much higher rate of metabolism than animal cells. Under ideal conditions some bacteria will double in size and divide in 20 min, whereas most animal cells require 24 h. The high rate of bacterial metabolism requires a high ratio of surface area to cell volume.
(a) Why would the surface-to-volume ratio have an effect on the maximum rate of metabolism?
(b) Calculate the surface-to-volume ratio for the spherical bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae (diameter 0.5 μm), responsible for the disease gonorrhea. Compare it with the surface-to-volume ratio for globular amoeba, a large eukaryotic cell of diameter 150 μm. The surface area of a sphere is 4πr2.
6. A Strategy to Increase the Surface Area of Cells Certain cells whose function is to absorb nutrients, e.g., the cells lining the small intestine or the root hair cells of a plant, are optimally adapted to their role because their exposed surface area is increased by microvilli. Consider a spherical epithelial cell (diameter 20 μm) lining the small intestine. Since only a part of the cell surface faces the interior of the intestine, assume that a "patch" corresponding to 25% of the cell area is covered with microvilli. Furthermore, assume that the microvilli are cylinders 0.1 μm in diameter, 1.0 μm long, and spaced in a regular grid 0.2 μm on center.
(b) Calculate the surface area of the patch, assuming it has no microvilli.
(c) Calculate the surface area of the patch, assuming it does have microvilli.
(d) What percentage improvement of the absorptive capacity (reflected by the surface-tovolume ratio) does the presence of microvilli provide?
7. Fast Axonal Transport Some neurons have long, thin extensions (axons) as long as 2 m. Small membrane vesicles carrying materials essential to axonal function move along microtubules from the cell body to the tip of the axon by kinesin-dependent "fast axonal transport." If the average velocity of a vesicle is 1 μm/s, how long does it take a vesicle to move the 2 m from cell body to axonal tip? What are the possible advantages of this ATP-dependent process over simple diffusion to move materials to the axonal tip?
8. Toxic Effects of Phalloidin Phalloidin is a toxin produced by the mushroom Amanita phalloides. It binds specifically to actin microfilaments and blocks their disassembly. Cytochalasin B is another toxin, which blocks microfilament assembly from actin monomers (see p. 42).
(a) Predict the effect of phalloidin on cytokinesis, phagocytosis, and amoeboid movement, given the effects of cytochalasins on these processes.
(b) A specific antibody (a protein of Mr ≈ 150,000) binds actin tightly and is found to block microfilament assembly in vitro (in the test tube). Would you expect this antibody to mimic the effects of cytochalasin in vivo (in living cells)?
9. Osmotic Breakage of Organelles In the isolation of cytosolic enzymes, cells are often broken in the presence of 0.2 M sucrose to prevent osmotic swelling and bursting of the intracellular organelles. If the desired enzymes are in the cytosol, why is it necessary to be concerned about possible damage to particulate organelles?
We review here some of the chemical principles that govern the properties of biological molecules: the covalent bonding of carbon with itself and with other elements, the functional groups that occur in common biological molecules, the three-dimensional structure and stereochemistry of carbon compounds, and the common classes of chemical reactions that occur in living organisms. Next, we discuss the monomeric units and the contribution of entropy to the free-energy changes of reactions in which these units are polymerized to form macromolecules. Finally, we consider the origin of the monomeric units from simple compounds in the earth’s atmosphere during prebiological times – that is, chemical evolution.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had become clear to chemists that the composition of living matter is strikingly different from that of the inanimate world. Antoine Lavoisier (1743–1794) noted the relative chemical simplicity of the "mineral world", and contrasted it with the complexity of the "plant and animal worlds"; the latter, he knew, were composed of compounds rich in the elements carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The development of organic chemistry preceded, and provided invaluable insights for, the development of biochemistry.
We will briefly review some fundamental concepts of organic chemistry: the nature of bonding between atoms of carbon and of hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen; the functional groups that result from these combinations; and the diversity of organic compounds that are derived from these elements.
Only about 30 of the more than 90 naturally occurring chemical elements are essential to living organisms. Most of the elements in living matter have relatively low atomic numbers; only five have atomic numbers above that of selenium, 34 (Fig. 3–1). The four most abundant elements in living organisms, in terms of the percentage of the total number of atoms, are hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon, which together make up over 99% of the mass of most cells. They are the lightest elements capable of forming one, two, three, and four bonds, respectively (Fig. 3–2). In general, the lightest elements form the strongest bonds. Six of the eight most abundant elements in the
human body are also among the nine most abundant elements in seawater (Table 3–1), and several of the elements abundant in humans are components of the atmosphere and were probably present in the atmosphere before the appearance of life on earth. Primitive seawater was most likely the liquid medium in which living organisms first arose, and the primitive atmosphere was probably a source of methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen, the starting materials for the evolution of life. The trace elements (Fig. 3–1) represent a miniscule fraction of the weight of the human body, but all are absolutely essential to life, usually because they are essential to the function of specific enzymes (Table 3–2).
The chemistry of living organisms is organized around the element carbon, which accounts for more than one-half the dry weight of cells. In methane (CH4), a carbon atom shares four electron pairs with four hydrogen atoms; each of the shared electron pairs forms a single bond. Carbon can also form single and double bonds to oxygen and nitrogen atoms (Fig. 3–3). Of greatest significance in biology is the ability of carbon atoms to share electron pairs with each other to form very stable carbon–carbon single bonds. Each carbon atom can form single bonds with one, two, three, or four other carbon atoms. Two carbon atoms also can share two (or three) electron pairs, thus forming carbon–carbon double (or triple) bonds (Fig. 3–3). Covalently linked carbon atoms can form linear chains, branched chains, and cyclic and cagelike structures. To these carbon skeletons are added groups of other atoms, called functional groups, which confer specific chemical properties on the molecule. Molecules containing covalently bonded carbon backbones are called organic compounds; they occur in an almost limitless variety. Most biomolecules are organic compounds; we can therefore infer that the bonding versatility of carbon was a major factor in the selection of carbon compounds for the molecular machinery of cells during the origin and evolution of living organisms.
The four covalent single bonds that can be formed by a carbon atom are arranged tetrahedrally, with an angle of about 109.5° between any two bonds (Fig. 3–4) and an average length of 0.154 nm. There is free rotation around each carbon–carbon single bond unless very large or highly charged groups are attached to both carbon atoms, in which case rotation may be restricted. A carbon–carbon double bond is shorter (about 0.134 nm long) and rigid and allows little rotation about its axis. (Fig. 3–4). No other chemical element can form molecules of such widely different sizes and shapes or with such a variety of functional groups.
Most biomolecules can be regarded as derivatives of hydrocarbons, compounds with a covalently linked carbon backbone to which only hydrogen atoms are bonded. The backbones of hydrocarbons are very stable. The hydrogen atoms may be replaced by a variety of functional groups to yield different families of organic compounds. Typical families of organic compounds are the alcohols, which have one or more hydroxyl groups; amines, which have amino groups; aldehydes and ketones, which have carbonyl groups; and carboxylic acids, which have carboxyl groups (Fig. 3–5).
Although the covalent bonds and functional groups of biomolecules are central to their function, they do not tell the whole story. The arrangement in three-dimensional space of the atoms of a biomolecule is also crucially important. Compounds of carbon can often exist in two or more chemically indistinguishable three-dimensional forms, only one of which is biologically active. This specificity for one particular molecular configuration is a universal feature of biological interactions. All biochemistry is three-dimensional.
Biomolecules have characteristic sizes and three-dimensional structures, which derive from their backbone structures and their substituent functional groups. Figure 3–7 shows three ways to illustrate the three-dimensional structures of molecules. The perspective diagram specifies unambiguously the three-dimensional structure (stereochemistry) of a compound. Bond angles and center-to-center bond lengths are best represented with ball-and-stick models, whereas the outer contours of molecules are better represented by space-filling models. In space-filling models, the radius of each atom is proportional to its van der Waals radius (Table 3–3), and the contours of the molecule represent the outer limits of the region from which atoms of other molecules are excluded.
The three-dimensional conformation of biomolecules is of the utmost importance in their interactions; for example, in the binding of a substrate (reactant) to the catalytic site of an enzyme (Fig. 3–8), the two molecules must fit each other closely, in a complementary fashion, for biological function. Such complementarity also is required in the binding of a hormone molecule to its receptor on a cell surface, or in the recognition of an antigen by a specific antibody.
The study of the three-dimensional structure of biomolecules with precise physical methods is an important part of modern research on cell structure and biochemical function. The most informative method is x-ray crystallography. If a compound can be crystallized, the diffraction of x rays by the crystals can be used to determine with great precision the position of every atom in the molecule relative to every other atom. The structures of most small biomolecules (those with less than about 50 atoms), and of many larger molecules such as proteins, have been deduced by this means. X-ray crystallography yields a static picture of the molecule within the confines of the crystal. However, biomolecules almost never exist within cells as crystals; rather, they are dissolved in the cytosol or associated with some other component(s) of the cell. Molecules have more freedom of intramolecular motion in solution than in a crystal. In large molecules such as proteins, the small variations allowed in the three-dimensional structures of their monomeric subunits add up to extensive flexibility. Techniques such as nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy complement x-ray crystallography by providing information about the three-dimensional structure of biomolecules in solution. Knowledge of the detailed three-dimensional structure of a molecule often sheds light on the mechanisms of the reactions in which the molecule participates.
The tetrahedral arrangement of single bonds around a carbon atom confers on some organic compounds another property of great importance in biology. When four different atoms or functional groups are bonded to a carbon atom in an organic molecule, the carbon atom is said to be asymmetric; it can exist in two different isomeric forms (stereoisomers) that have different configurations in space. A special class of stereoisomers, called enantiomers, are nonsuperimposable mirror images of each other (Fig. 3–9). The two enantiomers of a compound have identical chemical properties, but differ in a characteristic physical property, the ability to rotate the plane of plane-polarized light. A solution of one enantiomer rotates the plane of such light to the right, and a solution of the other, to the left. Compounds without an asymmetric carbon atom do not rotate the plane of plane-polarized light.
Louis Pasteur, in 1843, was the first to arrive at the correct explanation for this phenomenon of optical activity. Investigating the crystalline material that accumulated in wine casks ("paratartaric acid," also called racemic acid, from Latin racemus, "grape"), he had used a fine forceps to separate two types of crystals identical in shape, but mirror images of each other (Fig. 3–10). Both proved to have all of the chemical properties of tartaric acid, but one type rotated polarized light to the left, the other, to the right, but to the same extent. He later described the experiment and its interpretation:
In isomeric bodies, the elements and the proportions in which they are combined are the same, only the arrangement of the atoms is different. . . . We know, on the one hand, that the molecular arrangements of the two tartaric acids are asymmetric, and, on the other hand, that these arrangements are absolutely identical, excepting that they exhibit asymmetry in opposite directions. Are the atoms of the dextro acid grouped in the form of a right-handed spiral, or are they placed at the apex of an irregular tetrahedron, or are they disposed according to this or that asymmetric arrangement? We do not know.*
Compounds with asymmetric carbon atoms can be regarded as occurring in left- and right-handed forms, and are therefore called chiral compounds (Greek chiros, "hand"). Correspondingly, the asymmetric atom or center of chiral compounds is called the chiral atom or chiral center (Fig. 3–9). All but one of the 20 amino acids have chiral centers; glycine is the exception.
More generally, variations in the three-dimensional structure of biomolecules are described in terms of configuration and conformation. These terms are not synonyms. Configuration denotes the spatial arrangement of an organic molecule that is conferred by the presence of either (1) double bonds, around which there is no freedom of rotation, or (2) chiral centers, around which substituent groups are arranged in a specific sequence. The identifying characteristic of configurational isomers is that they cannot be interconverted without breaking one or more covalent bonds.
Figure 3–11a shows the configurations of maleic acid, which occurs in some plants, and its isomer fumaric acid, an intermediate in sugar metabolism. These compounds are geometric or cis–trans isomers; they differ in the arrangement of their substituent groups with respect to the nonrotating double bond. Maleic acid is the cis isomer and fumaric acid the trans isomer; each is a well-defined compound that can be isolated and purified. These two compounds are stereoisomers but not enantiomers; they are not mirror images of each other.
Many biomolecules besides amino acids are chiral, containing one or more asymmetric carbon atoms. The chiral molecules in living organisms are usually present in only one of their chiral forms. For example, the amino acids occur in proteins only as the L isomers. Glucose, the monomeric subunit of starch, has five asymmetric carbons, but occurs biologically in only one of its chiral forms, the D isomer. (The conventions for naming stereoisomers of the amino acids are described in Chapter 5; those for sugars, in Chapter 11). In contrast, when a compound having an asymmetric carbon atom is chemically synthesized in the laboratory, the nonbiological reactions usually produce all possible chiral forms in an equimolar mixture that does not rotate polarized light (a racemic mixture). The chiral forms in such a mixture can be separated only by painstaking physical methods. Chiral compounds in living cells are produced in only one chiral form because the enzymes that synthesize them are also chiral molecules.
Stereospecificity, the ability to distinguish between stereoisomers, is a common property of enzymes and other proteins and a characteristic feature of the molecular logic of living cells. If the binding site on a protein is complementary to one isomer of a chiral compound, it will not be complementary to the other isomer, for the same reason that a left glove does not fit a right hand. Two striking examples of the ability of biological systems to distinguish stereoisomers are shown in Figure 3–13.
Saturated hydrocarbons – molecules with carbon–carbon single bonds and without double bonds or substituent groups – are not easily attacked by most chemical reagents; biomolecules, with their various functional groups, are much more chemically reactive. Functional groups alter the electron distribution and the geometry of neighboring atoms and thus affect the chemical reactivity of the entire molecule. The breakage and formation of chemical bonds during cellular metabolism release energy, some in the form of heat.
It is possible to analyze and predict the chemical behavior and reactions of biomolecules from the functional groups they bear. Enzymes recognize a specific pattern of functional groups in a biomolecule and catalyze characteristic chemical changes in the compound that contains these groups. Although a large number of different chemical reactions occur in a typical cell, these reactions are of only a few types, readily understandable in terms that apply to all reactions of organic compounds.
When the two atoms sharing electrons in a covalent bond have equal affinities for the electrons, as in the case of two carbon atoms, the resulting bond is nonpolar. When two elements that differ in electron affinity, or electronegativity (Table 3–4), form a covalent bond (e.g., C and O), that bond is polarized; the shared electrons are more likely to be in the region of the more electronegative atom (O) than of the less electronegative (C). In the extreme case of two atoms of very different electronegativity (Na and Cl, for example), one of the atoms actually gives up the electron(s) to the other atom, resulting in the formation of ions and ionic interactions such as those in solid NaCl.
The strength of chemical bonds (Table 3–5) depends upon the relative electronegativities of the elements involved, the distance of the bonding electrons from each nucleus, and the nuclear charge. The number of electrons shared also influences bond strength; double bonds are stronger than single bonds, and triple bonds are stronger yet. The strength of a bond is expressed as bond energy, in joules. (In biochemistry, calories have often been used as units of energy – bond energy and free energy, for example. The joule is the unit of energy in the International System of Units, and is used throughout this book. For conversions, 1 cal is equal to 4.18 J.) Bond energy can be thought of as either the amount of energy required to break a bond or the amount of energy gained by the surroundings when two atoms form the bond. One way to put energy into a system is to heat it, which gives the molecules more kinetic energy; temperature is a measurement of the average kinetic energy of a population of molecules. When molecular motion is sufficiently violent, intramolecular vibrations and intermolecular collisions sometimes break chemical bonds. Heating raises the fraction of molecules with energies high enough to react.
In chemical reactions, bonds are broken and new ones are formed. The difference between the energy from the surroundings used to break bonds and the energy gained by the surroundings in the formation of new ones is virtually identical to the enthalpy change for the reaction, ΔH. (The energy difference becomes exactly equal to the enthalpy change after a slight correction for any volume change in the
Most cells have the capacity to carry out thousands of specific, enzyme-catalyzed reactions: transformation of simple nutrients such as glucose into amino acids, nucleotides, or lipids; extraction of energy from fuels by oxidation; or polymerization of subunits into macromolecules, for example. Fortunately for the student of biochemistry, there is a pattern in this multitude of reactions; we do not need to learn all of these reactions to comprehend the molecular logic of life.
Most of the reactions in living cells fall into one of five general categories (Fig. 3–14): functional-group transfers (a), oxidations and reductions (b), reactions that rearrange the bond structure around one or more carbons (c), reactions that form or break carbon–carbon bonds (d), and reactions in which two molecules condense, with the elimination of a molecule of water (e). Reactions within one category generally occur by similar mechanisms.
Many of the molecules found within cells are macromolecules, polymers of high molecular weight assembled from relatively simple precursors. Polysaccharides, proteins, and nucleic acids, which may have molecular weights ranging from tens of thousands to (in the case of DNA) billions, are produced by the polymerization of relatively small subunits with molecular weights of 500 or less. The synthesis of macromolecules is a major energy-consuming activity of cells. Macromolecules themselves may be further assembled into supramolecular complexes, forming functional units such as ribosomes, membranes, and organelles.
Table 3–7 shows the major classes of biomolecules in a representative single-celled organism, Escherichia coli. Water is the most abundant single compound in E. coli and in all other cells and organisms. Inorganic salts and mineral elements, on the other hand, constitute only a very small fraction of the total dry weight, but many of them are in approximate proportion to their distribution in seawater (see Table 3–1). Nearly all of the solid matter in all kinds of cells is organic and is present in four forms: proteins, nucleic acids, polysaccharides, and lipids.
Proteins, long polymers of amino acids, constitute the largest fraction (besides water) of cells. Some proteins have catalytic activity and function as enzymes, others serve as structural elements, and still others carry specific signals (in the case of receptors) or specific substances (in the case of transport proteins) into or out of cells. Proteins are perhaps the most versatile of all biomolecules. The nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, are polymers of nucleotides. They store, transmit, and translate genetic information. The polysaccharides, polymers of simple sugars such as glucose, have two major functions: they serve as energy-yielding fuel stores and as extracellular structural elements. Shorter polymers of sugars (oligosaccharides) attached to proteins or lipids at the cell surface serve as specific cellular signals. The lipids, greasy or oily hydrocarbon derivatives, serve as structural components of membranes, as a storage form of energy-rich fuel, and in other roles. These four classes of large biomolecules are all synthesized in condensation reactions (Fig. 3–14e). In macromolecules – proteins, nucleic acids, and polysaccharides – the number of monomeric subunits is
Although living organisms contain a very large number of different proteins and different nucleic acids, a fundamental simplicity underlies their structure (Chapter 1). The simple monomeric subunits from which all proteins and all nucleic acids are constructed are few in number and identical in all living species. Proteins and nucleic acids are informational macromolecules: each protein and each nucleic acid has a characteristic information-rich subunit sequence (Fig. 3–15).
Polysaccharides built from only a single kind of unit, or from two different alternating units, are not informational molecules in the same sense as are proteins and nucleic acids (Fig. 3–15). However, complex polysaccharides made up of six or more different kinds of sugars connected in branched chains do have the structural and stereochemical variety that enables them to carry information recognizable by other macromolecules.
Figure 3–16 shows the structures of some monomeric units, arranged in families. We have already seen that the most abundant polysaccharides in nature, starch and cellulose, are constructed of repeating units of D-glucose. The monomeric subunits of proteins are 20 different amino acids; all have an amino group (an imino group in the case of proline) and a carboxyl group attached to the same carbon atom, called, by convention, the α carbon. These α-amino acids differ from each other only in their side chains (Fig. 3–16).
The recurring structural units of all nucleic acids are eight different nucleotides; four kinds of nucleotides are the structural units of DNA, and four others are the units of RNA. Each nucleotide is made up of three components: (1) a nitrogenous organic base, (2) a five-carbon sugar, and (3) phosphate (Fig. 3–16). The eight different nucleotides of DNA and RNA are built from five different organic bases combined with two different sugars.
Lipids also are constructed from relatively few kinds of subunits. Most lipid molecules contain one or more long-chain fatty acids, of which palmitic acid and oleic acid are parent compounds. Many lipids also contain an alcohol, e.g., glycerol, and some contain phosphate (Fig. 3–16). Thus, only three dozen different organic compounds are the parents of most biomolecules.
Each of the compounds in Figure 3–16 has multiple functions in living organisms (Fig. 3–17). Amino acids are not only the monomeric subunits of proteins; some also act as neurotransmitters and as precursors of hormones and toxins. Adenine serves both as a subunit in the structure of nucleic acids and of ATP, and as a neurotransmitter. Fatty acids serve as components of complex membrane lipids, energy-rich fuel-storage fats, and the protective waxy coats on leaves and fruits. D-Glucose is the monomeric subunit of starch and cellulose, and also is the precursor of other sugars such as D-mannose and sucrose.
It is extremely improbable that amino acids in a mixture would spontaneously condense into a protein with a unique sequence. This would represent increased order in a population of molecules; but according to the second law of thermodynamics (Chapter 13) the tendency is toward ever-greater disorder in the universe. To bring about the synthesis of macromolecules from their monomeric subunits, free energy must be supplied to the system (the cell).
Recall from Chapter 1 that a process tends to occur spontaneously only if ΔG is negative. How, then, can cells synthesize polymers such as proteins and nucleic acids, if the free-energy change for polymerizing subunits is positive? They couple these thermodynamically unfavorable (endergonic) reactions to other cellular reactions that liberate free energy (exergonic reactions), so that the sum of the free-energy changes is negative:
The monomeric subunits in Figure 3–16 are very small compared with biological macromolecules. An amino acid molecule such as alanine is less than 0.5 nm long. Hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein of erythrocytes, consists of nearly 600 amino acid units covalently linked into four long chains, which are folded into globular shapes and associated in a tetrameric structure with a diameter of 5.5 nm. Protein molecules in turn are small compared with ribosomes (about 20 nm in diameter), which contain about 70 different proteins and several different RNA molecules. Ribosomes, in their turn, are much smaller than organelles such as mitochondria, typically 1,000 nm in diameter. It is a long jump from the simple biomolecules to the larger cellular structures that can be seen with the light microscope. Figure 3–18 illustrates the structural hierarchy in cellular organization.
In proteins, nucleic acids, and polysaccharides, the individual subunits are joined by covalent bonds. By contrast, in supramolecular complexes, the different macromolecules are held together by noncovalent interactions – much weaker, individually, than covalent bonds. Among these are hydrogen bonds (between polar groups), ionic interactions (between charged groups), hydrophobic interactions (between nonpolar groups), and van der Waals interactions, all of which have energies of only a few kilojoules, compared with covalent bonds, which have bond energies of 200 to 900 kJ/mol (see Table 3–5). The nature of these noncovalent interactions will be described in the next chapter.
Although the monomeric subunits of macromolecules are so much smaller than cells and organelles, they influence the shape and function of these much larger structures. In sickle-cell anemia, a hereditary human disorder, the hemoglobin molecule is defective. In the two β chains of hemoglobin from healthy individuals, a glutamic acid residue occurs at position 6. In people with sickle-cell anemia, a valine residue occurs at position 6. This single difference in the sequence of the 146 amino acids of the β chain affects only a tiny portion of the molecule, yet it causes the hemoglobin to form large aggregates within the erythrocytes, which become deformed (sickled) and function abnormally.
Because all biological macromolecules are made from the same three dozen subunits, it seems likely that all living organisms descended from a single primordial cell line. These subunits are proposed to have had, singly and collectively, the most successful combination of chemical and physical properties for their function as the raw materials of biological macromolecules and for carrying out the basic energy-transforming and self-replicating features of a living cell. These primordial organic compounds may have been retained during biological evolution over billions of years because of their unique fitness.
We come now to a puzzle. Apart from their occurrence in living organisms, organic compounds, including the basic biomolecules, occur only in trace amounts in the earth’s crust, the sea, and the atmosphere. How did the first living organisms acquire their characteristic organic building blocks? In 1922, the biochemist Aleksandr I. Oparin proposed a theory for the origin of life early in the history of the earth, postulating that the atmosphere was once very different from that of today. Rich in methane, ammonia, and water, and essentially devoid of oxygen, it was a reducing atmosphere, in contrast to the oxidizing environment of our era. In Oparin’s theory, electrical energy of lightning discharges or heat energy from volcanoes (Fig. 3–19) caused ammonia, methane, water vapor, and other components of the primitive atmosphere to react, forming simple organic compounds. These compounds then dissolved in the ancient seas, which over many millenia became enriched with a large variety of simple organic compounds. In this warm solution (the "primordial soup") some organic molecules had a greater tendency than others to associate into larger complexes. Over millions of years, these in turn assembled spontaneously to form membranes and catalysts (enzymes), which came together to become precursors of the first primitive cells. For many years, Oparin’s views remained speculative and appeared untestable.
A classic experiment on the abiotic (nonbiological) origin of organic biomolecules was carried out in 1953 by Stanley Miller in the laboratory of Harold Urey. Miller subjected gaseous mixtures of NH3, CH4, water vapor, and H2 to electrical sparks produced across a pair of electrodes (to simulate lightning) for periods of a week or more (Fig. 3–20), then analyzed the contents of the closed reaction vessel. The gas phase of the resulting mixture contained CO and CO2, as well as the starting
Several developments have allowed more refined studies of the type pioneered by Miller and Urey, and have yielded strong evidence that a wide variety of biomolecules, including proteins and nucleic acids, could have been produced spontaneously from simple starting materials probably present on the earth at the time life arose.
Modern extensions of the Miller experiments have employed "atmospheres" that include CO2 and HCN, and much improved technology for identifying small quantities of products. The formation of hundreds of organic compounds has been demonstrated (Table 3–8). These compounds include more than ten of the common amino acids, a variety of mono-, di-, and tricarboxylic acids, fatty acids, adenine, and formaldehyde. Under certain conditions, formaldehyde polymerizes to form sugars containing three, four, five, and six carbons. The sources of energy that are effective in bringing about the formation of these compounds include heat, visible and ultraviolet (UV) light, x rays, gamma radiation, ultrasound and shock waves, and alpha and beta particles.
In addition to the many monomers that form in these experiments, polymers of nucleotides (nucleic acids) and of amino acids (proteins) also form. Some of the products of the self condensation of HCN are effective promoters of such polymerization reactions (Fig. 3–21), and inorganic ions present in the earth’s crust (Cu2+, Ni2+, and Zn2+) also enhance the rate of polymerization.
In short, laboratory experiments on the spontaneous formation of biomolecules under prebiotic conditions have provided good evidence that many of the chemical components of living cells, including proteins and RNA, can form under these conditions. Short polymers of RNA can act as catalysts in biologically significant reactions (Chapter 25), and it seems likely that RNA played a crucial role in prebiotic evolution, both as catalyst and as information repository.
In modern organisms, nucleic acids encode the genetic information that specifies the structure of enzymes, and enzymes have the ability to catalyze the replication and repair of nucleic acids. The mutual dependence of these two classes of biomolecules poses the perplexing question: which came first, DNA or protein?
The answer may be: neither. The discovery that RNA molecules can act as catalysts in their own formation suggests that RNA may have been the first gene and the first catalyst. According to this scenario (Fig. 3–22), one of the earliest stages of biological evolution was the chance formation, in the primordial soup, of an RNA molecule that had the ability to catalyze the formation of other RNA molecules of the same sequence – a self-replicating, self-perpetuating RNA. The concentration of a self-replicating RNA molecule would increase exponentially, as one molecule formed two, two formed four, and so on. The fidelity of self replication was presumably less than perfect, so the process would generate variants of the RNA, some of which might be even better able to self-replicate. In the competition for nucleotides, the most efficient of the self-replicating sequences would win, and less efficient replicators would fade from the population.
The division of function between DNA (genetic information storage) and protein (catalysis) was, according to the "RNA world" hypothesis, a later development (Fig. 3–22). New variants of self-replicating RNA molecules developed, with the additional ability to catalyze the condensation of amino acids into peptides. Occasionally, the peptide(s) thus formed would reinforce the self-replicating ability of the RNA, and the pair – RNA molecule and helping peptide – could undergo further modifications in sequence, generating even more efficient self-replicating systems. Sometime after the evolution of this primitive protein-synthesizing system, there was a further development: DNA molecules with sequences complementary to the self-replicating RNA molecules took over the function of conserving the "genetic" information, and RNA molecules evolved to play roles in protein synthesis. Proteins proved to be versatile catalysts, and over time, assumed that function. Lipidlike compounds in the primordial soup formed relatively impermeable layers surrounding self-replicating collections of molecules. The concentration of proteins and nucleic acids within these lipid enclosures favored the molecular interactions required in self-replication.
This "RNA world" hypothesis is plausible but by no means universally accepted. The hypothesis does make testable predictions, and to the extent that experimental tests are possible within finite times (less than or equal to the life span of a scientist!), the hypothesis will be tested and refined.
The earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and the first definitive evidence of life dates to about 3.5 billion years ago. An international group of scientists showed in 1980 that certain ancient rock formations (stromatolites; Fig. 3–23) in western Australia contained fossils of primitive microorganisms. Somewhere on earth during that first billion-year period, there arose the first simple organism, capable