How Enzymes Work

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Chapter: Biochemistry : Enzymes

The mechanism of enzyme action can be viewed from two different perspectives. The first treats catalysis in terms of energy changes that occur during the reaction.


The mechanism of enzyme action can be viewed from two different perspectives. The first treats catalysis in terms of energy changes that occur during the reaction. That is, enzymes provide an alternate, energetically favorable reaction pathway different from the uncatalyzed reaction. The second perspective describes how the active site chemically facilitates catalysis.


A. Energy changes occurring during the reaction

Virtually all chemical reactions have an energy barrier separating the reactants and the products. This barrier, called the free energy of activation, is the energy difference between that of the reactants and a high-energy intermediate that occurs during the formation of product. For example, Figure 5.4 shows the changes in energy during the conversion of a molecule of reactant A to product B as it proceeds through the transition state (high-energy intermediate), T*:

A  T* B

Figure 5.4 Effect of an enzyme on the activation energy of a reaction.


1. Free energy of activation: The peak of energy in Figure 5.4 is the difference in free energy between the reactant and T*, where the high-energy intermediate is formed during the conversion of reactant to product. Because of the high free energy of activation, the rates of uncatalyzed chemical reactions are often slow.


2. Rate of reaction: For molecules to react, they must contain sufficient energy to overcome the energy barrier of the transition state. In the absence of an enzyme, only a small proportion of a population of molecules may possess enough energy to achieve the transition state between reactant and product. The rate of reaction is determined by the number of such energized molecules. In general, the lower the free energy of activation, the more molecules have sufficient energy to pass through the transition state, and, therefore, the faster the rate of the reaction.


3. Alternate reaction pathway: An enzyme allows a reaction to proceed rapidly under conditions prevailing in the cell by providing an alternate reaction pathway with a lower free energy of activation (see Figure 5.4). The enzyme does not change the free energies of the reactants or products and, therefore, does not change the equilibrium of the reaction. It does, however, accelerate the rate by which equilibrium is reached.


B. Chemistry of the active site

The active site is not a passive receptacle for binding the substrate but, rather, is a complex molecular machine employing a diversity of chemical mechanisms to facilitate the conversion of substrate to product. A number of factors are responsible for the catalytic efficiency of enzymes, including the following examples.


1. Transition-state stabilization: The active site often acts as a flexible molecular template that binds the substrate and initiates its conversion to the transition state, a structure in which the bonds are not like those in the substrate or the product (see T* at the top of the curve in Figure 5.4). By stabilizing the transition state, the enzyme greatly increases the concentration of the reactive intermediate that can be converted to product and, thus, accelerates the reaction. [Note: The transition state cannot be isolated.]


2. Other mechanisms: The active site can provide catalytic groups that enhance the probability that the transition state is formed. In some enzymes, these groups can participate in general acid–base catalysis in which amino acid residues provide or accept protons. In other enzymes, catalysis may involve the transient formation of a covalent ES complex. [Note: The mechanism of action of chymotrypsin, an enzyme of protein digestion in the intestine, includes general base, general acid, and covalent catalysis. A histidine at the active site of the enzyme gains (general base) and loses (general acid) protons, mediated by the pK of histidine in proteins being close to physiologic pH. Serine at the active site forms a covalent link with the substrate.]


3. Visualization of the transition state: The enzyme-catalyzed conversion of substrate to product can be visualized as being similar to removing a sweater from an uncooperative infant (Figure 5.5). The process has a high energy of activation because the only reasonable strategy for removing the garment (short of ripping it off) requires that the random flailing of the baby results in both arms being fully extended over the head, an unlikely posture. However, we can envision a parent acting as an enzyme, first coming in contact with the baby (forming ES), then guiding the baby’s arms into an extended, vertical position, analogous to the ES transition state. This posture (conformation) of the baby facilitates the removal of the sweater, forming the disrobed baby, which here represents product. [Note: The substrate bound to the enzyme (ES) is at a slightly lower energy than unbound substrate (S) and explains the small “dip” in the curve at ES.]

Figure 5.5 Schematic representation of energy changes accompanying formation of an enzyme-substrate complex and subsequent formation of a transition state.

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