Overall Nitrogen Metabolism

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Chapter: Biochemistry : Amino Acids: Disposal of Nitrogen

Amino acid catabolism is part of the larger process of the metabolism of nitrogen-containing molecules.


Amino acid catabolism is part of the larger process of the metabolism of nitrogen-containing molecules. Nitrogen enters the body in a variety of compounds present in food, the most important being amino acids contained in dietary protein. Nitrogen leaves the body as urea, ammonia, and other products derived from amino acid metabolism. The role of body proteins in these transformations involves two important concepts: the amino acid pool and protein turnover.


A. Amino acid pool

Free amino acids are present throughout the body, such as in cells, blood, and the extracellular fluids. For the purpose of this discussion, envision all of these amino acids as if they belonged to a single entity, called the amino acid pool. This pool is supplied by three sources: 1) amino acids provided by the degradation of endogenous (body) proteins, most of which are reutilized; 2) amino acids derived from exogenous (dietary) protein; and 3) nonessential amino acids synthesized from simple intermediates of metabolism (Figure 19.2). Conversely, the amino pool is depleted by three routes: 1) synthesis of body protein; 2) consumption of amino acids as precursors of essential nitrogen-containing small molecules; and 3) conversion of amino acids to glucose, glycogen, fatty acids, and ketone bodies, or oxidation to CO2 + H2O (see Figure 19.2). Although the amino acid pool is small (comprising about 90– 100 g of amino acids) in comparison with the amount of protein in the body (about 12 kg in a 70-kg man), it is conceptually at the center of whole-body nitrogen metabolism.

In healthy, well-fed individuals, the input to the amino acid pool is balanced by the output. That is, the amount of amino acids contained in the pool is constant. The amino acid pool is said to be in a steady state, and the individual is said to be in nitrogen balance.

Figure 19.2 Sources and fates of amino acids.


B. Protein turnover

Most proteins in the body are constantly being synthesized and then degraded, permitting the removal of abnormal or unneeded proteins. For many proteins, regulation of synthesis determines the concentration of protein in the cell, with protein degradation assuming a minor role. For other proteins, the rate of synthesis is constitutive (that is, essentially constant), and cellular levels of the protein are controlled by selective degradation.


1. Rate of turnover: In healthy adults, the total amount of protein in the body remains constant because the rate of protein synthesis is just sufficient to replace the protein that is degraded. This process, called protein turnover, leads to the hydrolysis and resynthesis of 300–400 g of body protein each day. The rate of protein turnover varies widely for individual proteins. Short-lived proteins (for example, many regulatory proteins and misfolded proteins) are rapidly degraded, having half-lives measured in minutes or hours. Long-lived proteins, with half-lives of days to weeks, constitute the majority of proteins in the cell. Structural proteins, such as collagen, are metabolically stable and have half-lives measured in months or years.


2. Protein degradation: There are two major enzyme systems responsible for degrading proteins: the adenosine triphosphate (ATP)-dependent ubiquitin-proteasome system of the cytosol, and the ATP-independent degradative enzyme system of the lysosomes. Proteasomes selectively degrade damaged or short-lived proteins. Lysosomes use acid hydrolases to nonselectively degrade intracellular proteins (“autophagy”) and extracellular proteins (“heterophagy”), such as plasma proteins, that are taken into the cell by endocytosis.


a. Ubiquitin–proteasome proteolytic pathway: Proteins selected for degradation by the cytosolic ubiquitin-proteasome system are first modified by the covalent attachment of ubiquitin (Ub), a small, globular, nonenzymic protein that is highly conserved across eukaryotic species. Ubiquitination of the target substrate occurs through isopeptide linkage of the α-carboxyl group of the C-terminal glycine of Ub to the ε-amino group of a lysine on the protein substrate by a three-step, enzyme-catalyzed, ATP-dependent process. [Note: Enzyme 1 (E1, or activating enzyme) activates Ub, which is then transferred to E2 (conjugating enzyme). E3 (a ligase) identifies the protein to be degraded and interacts with E2-Ub.] The consecutive addition of four or more Ub molecules to the target protein generates a polyubiquitin chain. Proteins tagged with Ub are recognized by a large, barrel-shaped, macromolecular, proteolytic complex called a proteasome (Figure 19.3). The proteasome unfolds, deubiquitinates, and cuts the target protein into fragments that are then further degraded by cytosolic proteases to amino acids, which enter the amino acid pool. Ub is recycled. It is noteworthy that the selective degradation of proteins by the ubiquitin-proteosome complex (unlike simple hydrolysis by proteolytic enzymes) requires energy in the form of ATP.

Figure 19.3 The ubiquitin-proteasome degradation pathway of proteins. AMP = adenosine monophosphate; PPi = pyrophosphate.


b. Chemical signals for protein degradation: Because proteins have different half-lives, it is clear that protein degradation cannot be random but, rather, is influenced by some structural aspect of the protein. For example, some proteins that have been chemically altered by oxidation or tagged with ubiquitin are preferentially degraded. The half-life of a protein is also influenced by the amino (N)-terminal residue. For example, proteins that have serine as the N-terminal amino acid are long-lived, with a half-life of more than 20 hours, whereas those with aspartate at their N-terminus have a half-life of only 3 minutes. Additionally, proteins rich in sequences containing proline, glutamate, serine, and threonine (called PEST sequences after the one-letter designations for these amino acids) are rapidly degraded and, therefore, have short half-lives.

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