Some science behind the scenes
Enzymes are macromolecular biological catalysts. They are responsible for thousands of metabolic processes that sustain life.
Enzymes are highly selective catalysts, greatly accelerating both the rate and specificity of metabolic reactions, from the digestion of food to the synthesis of DNA. Most enzymes are proteins, although some catalytic RNA molecules have been identified. Enzymes adopt a specific three-dimensional structure, and may employ organic (e.g. biotin) and inorganic (e.g. magnesium ion) cofactors to assist in catalysis.
Enzymes act by converting starting molecules (substrates) into different molecules (products). Almost all chemical reactions in a biological cell need enzymes in order to occur at rates sufficient for life. Since enzymes are selective for their substrates and speed up only a few reactions from among many possibilities, the set of enzymes made in a cell determines which metabolic pathways occur in that cell, tissue and organ.
Like all catalysts, enzymes increase the rate of a reaction by lowering its activation energy (Ea‡). As a result, products are formed faster and reactions reach their equilibrium state more rapidly. Most enzyme reaction rates are millions of times faster than those of comparable un-catalyzed reactions and some are so fast that they are’ diffusion limited’. As with all catalysts, enzymes are not consumed by the reactions they catalyze, nor do they alter the equilibrium of these reactions. However, enzymes do differ from most other catalysts in that they are highly specific for their substrates. Enzymes are known to catalyze about 4,000 biochemical reactions. A few RNA molecules called ribozymes also catalyze reactions, with an important example being some parts of the ribosome. Synthetic molecules called artificial enzymes also display enzyme-like catalysis.
Enzyme activity can be affected by other molecules: decreased by inhibitors or increased by activators.
Many drugs and poisons are enzyme inhibitors. Activity is also affected by temperature, pressure, chemical environment (e.g., pH), and the concentration of substrate. Some enzymes are used commercially, for example, in the synthesis of antibiotics. In addition, some household products use enzymes to speed up biochemical reactions (e.g., enzymes in biological washing powders break down protein or fat stains on clothes; enzymes in meat tenderizers break down proteins into smaller molecules, making the meat easier to chew).
Viruses can also contain enzymes for infecting cells, such as the HIV integrase and reverse transcriptase, or for viral release from cells, like the influenza virus neuraminidase.
An important function of enzymes is in the digestive systems of animals. Enzymes such as amylases and proteases break down large molecules (starch or proteins, respectively) into smaller ones, so they can be absorbed by the intestines. Starch molecules, for example, are too large to be absorbed from the intestine, but enzymes hydrolyze the starch chains into smaller molecules such as maltose and eventually glucose, which can then be absorbed. Different enzymes digest different food substances.
Several enzymes can work together in a specific order, creating metabolic pathways. In a metabolic pathway, one enzyme takes the product of another enzyme as a substrate. After the catalytic reaction, the product is then passed on to another enzyme. Sometimes more than one enzyme can catalyze the same reaction in parallel; this can allow more complex regulation: with, for example, a low constant activity provided by one enzyme but an inducible high activity from a second enzyme.
Enzymes determine what steps occur in these pathways. Without enzymes, metabolism would neither progress through the same steps nor be fast enough to serve the needs of the cell. Indeed, a metabolic pathway such as glycolysis could not exist independently of enzymes. Glucose, for example, can react directly with ATP to become phosphorylated at one or more of its carbons. In the absence of enzymes, this occurs so slowly as to be insignificant. However, if hexokinase is added, these slow reactions continue to take place except that phosphorylation at carbon 6 occurs so rapidly that, if the mixture is tested a short time later, glucose-6-phosphate is found to be the only significant product. As a consequence, the network of metabolic pathways within each cell depends on the set of functional enzymes that are present.
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