- Recognize the various types of electron donors and acceptors
In prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea) there are several different electron donors and several different electron acceptors. Note that electrons can enter the chain at three levels: at the level of a dehydrogenase, at the level of the quinone pool, or at the level of a mobile cytochrome electron carrier. These levels correspond to successively more positive redox potentials, or to successively decreased potential differences relative to the terminal electron acceptor. In other words, they correspond to successively smaller Gibbs free energy changes for the overall redox reaction Donor → Acceptor.
Individual bacteria use multiple electron transport chains, often simultaneously. Bacteria can use a number of different electron donors, a number of different dehydrogenases, a number of different oxidases and reductases, and a number of different electron acceptors. For example, E. coli (when growing aerobically using glucose as an energy source) uses two different NADH dehydrogenases and two different quinol oxidases, for a total of four different electron transport chains operating simultaneously.
A common feature of all electron transport chains is the presence of a proton pump to create a transmembrane proton gradient. Bacterial electron transport chains may contain as many as three proton pumps, like mitochondria, or they may contain only one or two. They always contain at least one proton pump.
In the present day biosphere, the most common electron donors are organic molecules. Organisms that use organic molecules as an energy source are called organotrophs. Organotrophs (animals, fungi, protists) and phototrophs (plants and algae) constitute the vast majority of all familiar life forms.
Some prokaryotes can use inorganic matter as an energy source. Such organisms are called lithotrophs (“rock-eaters”). Inorganic electron donors include hydrogen, carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrite, sulfur, sulfide, and ferrous iron. Lithotrophs have been found growing in rock formations thousands of meters below the surface of Earth. Because of their volume of distribution, lithotrophs may actually out number organotrophs and phototrophs in our biosphere.
The use of inorganic electron donors as an energy source is of particular interest in the study of evolution. This type of metabolism must logically have preceded the use of organic molecules as an energy source.
Just as there are a number of different electron donors (organic matter in organotrophs, inorganic matter in lithotrophs), there are a number of different electron acceptors, both organic and inorganic. If oxygen is available, it is invariably used as the terminal electron acceptor, because it generates the greatest Gibbs free energy change and produces the most energy.
In anaerobic environments, different electron acceptors are used, including nitrate, nitrite, ferric iron, sulfate, carbon dioxide, and small organic molecules such as fumarate.
Since electron transport chains are redox processes, they can be described as the sum of two redox pairs. For example, the mitochondrial electron transport chain can be described as the sum of the NAD+/NADH redox pair and the O2/H2O redox pair. NADH is the electron donor and O2 is the electron acceptor.
Not every donor-acceptor combination is thermodynamically possible. The redox potential of the acceptor must be more positive than the redox potential of the donor. Furthermore, actual environmental conditions may be far different from standard conditions (1 molar concentrations, 1 atm partial pressures, pH = 7), which apply to standard redox potentials. For example, hydrogen-evolving bacteria grow at an ambient partial pressure of hydrogen gas of 10-4 atm. The associated redox reaction, which is thermodynamically favorable in nature, is thermodynamically impossible under “standard” conditions.
Bacterial electron transport pathways are, in general, inducible. Depending on their environment, bacteria can synthesize different transmembrane complexes and produce different electron transport chains in their cell membranes. Bacteria select their electron transport chains from a DNA library containing multiple possible dehydrogenases, terminal oxidases and terminal reductases. The situation is often summarized by saying that electron transport chains in bacteria are branched, modular, and inducible.
- Bacterial electron transport chains may contain as many as three proton pumps.
- The most common electron donors are organic molecules.
- There are a number of different electron acceptors, both organic and inorganic. If oxygen is available, it is invariably used as the terminal electron acceptor.
- organotroph: An organism that obtains its energy from organic compounds.
- lithotroph: An organism that obtains its energy from inorganic compounds (such as ammonia) via electron transfer.