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Introduction

In this photo, a hummingbird drinks from a feeder.
Figure 6.1 A hummingbird needs energy to maintain prolonged periods of flight. The bird obtains its energy from taking in food and transforming the nutrients into energy through a series of biochemical reactions. The flight muscles in birds are extremely efficient in energy production. (credit: modification of work by Cory Zanker)

Virtually every task performed by living organisms requires energy. Energy is needed to perform heavy labor and exercise. Humans also use a great deal of energy while thinking and even during sleep. In fact, the living cells of every organism constantly use energy. Nutrients and other molecules are imported, metabolized (broken down), synthesized into new molecules, modified if needed, transported around the cell, and, in some cases, distributed to the entire organism. For example, the large proteins that make up muscles are actively built from smaller molecules. Complex carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars that the cell uses for energy. Just as energy is required to both build and demolish a building, energy is required for both the synthesis and breakdown of molecules. Additionally, signaling molecules such as hormones and neurotransmitters are actively transported between cells. Pathogenic bacteria and viruses are ingested and broken down by cells. Cells must also export waste and toxins to stay healthy. Many cells swim or move surrounding materials via the beating motion of cellular appendages such as cilia and flagella.

All of the cellular processes listed above require a steady supply of energy. From where, and in what form, does this energy come? How do living cells obtain energy and how do they use it? This chapter will discuss different forms of energy and the physical laws that govern energy transfer.

How enzymes lower the activation energy required to begin a chemical reaction in the body will also be discussed in this chapter. Enzymes are crucial for life; without enzymes the chemical reactions required to survive would not happen fast enough for an organism to survive. For example, in an individual who lacks one of the enzymes needed to break down a type of carbohydrate known as a mucopolysaccharide, waste products accumulate in the cells and cause progressive brain damage. This deadly genetic disease is called Sanfilippo Syndrome type B or Mucopolysaccharidosis III. Previously incurable, scientists have now discovered a way to replace the missing enzyme in the brain of mice. Read more about the scientists’ research here.