Energy Carriers: NAD+ , NADP+ , FAD, and ATP

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The energy released from dephosphorylation of ATP is used to drive cellular work, including anabolic pathways. ATP is regenerated through phosphorylation, harnessing the energy found in chemicals or from sunlight. (credit: modification of work by Robert Bear, David Rintoul)

OpenStax Microbiology

The energy released from the breakdown of the chemical bonds within nutrients can be stored either through the reduction of electron carriers or in the bonds of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). In living systems, a small class of compounds functions as mobile electron carriers, molecules that bind to and shuttle high-energy electrons between compounds in pathways. The principal electron carriers we will consider originate from the B vitamin group and are derivatives of nucleotides; they are nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, nicotine adenine dinucleotide phosphate, and flavin adenine dinucleotide. These compounds can be easily reduced or oxidized. Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+ /NADH) is the most common mobile electron carrier used in catabolism. NAD+ is the oxidized form of the molecule; NADH is the reduced form of the molecule. Nicotine adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADP+ ), the oxidized form of an NAD+ variant that contains an extra phosphate group, is another important electron carrier; it forms NADPH when reduced. The oxidized form of flavin adenine dinucleotide is FAD, and its reduced form is FADH2. Both NAD+ /NADH and FAD/FADH2 are extensively used in energy extraction from sugars during catabolism in chemoheterotrophs, whereas NADP+ /NADPH plays an important role in anabolic reactions and photosynthesis. Collectively, FADH2, NADH, and NADPH are often referred to as having reducing power due to their ability to donate electrons to various chemical reactions.

A living cell must be able to handle the energy released during catabolism in a way that enables the cell to store energy safely and release it for use only as needed. Living cells accomplish this by using the compound adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is often called the “energy currency” of the cell, and, like currency, this versatile compound can be used to fill any energy need of the cell. At the heart of ATP is a molecule of adenosine monophosphate (AMP), which is composed of an adenine molecule bonded to a ribose molecule and a single phosphate group. Ribose is a five-carbon sugar found in RNA, and AMP is one of the nucleotides in RNA. The addition of a second phosphate group to this core molecule results in the formation of adenosine diphosphate (ADP); the addition of a third phosphate group forms ATP. Adding a phosphate group to a molecule, a process called phosphorylation, requires energy. Phosphate groups are negatively charged and thus repel one another when they are arranged in series, as they are in ADP and ATP. This repulsion makes the ADP and ATP molecules inherently unstable. Thus, the bonds between phosphate groups (one in ADP and two in ATP) are called high-energy phosphate bonds. When these highenergy bonds are broken to release one phosphate (called inorganic phosphate [Pi ]) or two connected phosphate groups (called pyrophosphate [PPi ]) from ATP through a process called dephosphorylation, energy is released to drive endergonic reactions.

Exergonic reactions are coupled to endergonic ones, making the combination favorable. Here, the endergonic reaction of ATP phosphorylation is coupled to the exergonic reactions of catabolism. Similarly, the exergonic reaction of ATP dephosphorylation is coupled to the endergonic reaction of polypeptide formation, an example of anabolism.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: