Electron Transport Chain


This illustration shows the electron transport chain embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane. The electron transport chain consists of four electron complexes. Complex I oxidizes N A D H to N A D superscript plus sign baseline; and simultaneously pumps a proton across the membrane to the inter membrane space. The two electrons released from N A D H are shuttled to coenzyme Q, then to complex I I I, to cytochrome c, to complex I V, then to molecular oxygen. In the process, two more protons are pumped across the membrane to the intermembrane space, and molecular oxygen is reduced to form water. Complex I I removes two electrons from F A D H subscript 2 baseline, thereby forming F A D. The electrons are shuttled to coenzyme Q, then to complex I I I, cytochrome c, complex I, and molecular oxygen as in the case of N A D H oxidation.
The electron transport chain is a series of electron transporters embedded in the inner mitochondrial membrane that shuttles electrons from NADH and FADH2 to molecular oxygen. In the process, protons are pumped from the mitochondrial matrix to the intermembrane space, and oxygen is reduced to form water.

Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The electron transport chain is the last component of aerobic respiration and is the only part of glucose metabolism that uses atmospheric oxygen. Oxygen continuously diffuses into plant tissues (typically through stomata), as well as into fungi and bacteria; however, in animals, oxygen enters the body through a variety of respiratory systems. Electron transport is a series of redox reactions that resembles a relay race or bucket brigade in that electrons are passed rapidly from one component to the next, to the endpoint of the chain where the electrons reduce molecular oxygen and, along with associated protons, produces water. There are four complexes composed of proteins, labeled I through IV, and the aggregation of these four complexes, together with associated mobile, accessory electron carriers, is called the electron transport chain. The electron transport chain is present with multiple copies in the inner mitochondrial membrane of eukaryotes and within the plasma membrane of prokaryotes.

– What is the aerobic catabolism of nutrients to carbon dioxide, water, and energy, and involves an electron transport system in which molecular oxygen is the final electron acceptor?

Complex I

First, two electrons are carried to the first complex via NADH. This complex, labeled I, is composed of flavin mononucleotide (FMN) and an iron-sulfur (Fe-S)-containing protein. FMN, which is derived from vitamin B2 (also called riboflavin), is one of several prosthetic groups or cofactors in the electron transport chain. A prosthetic group is a nonprotein molecule required for the activity of a protein. Prosthetic groups are organic or inorganic, nonpeptide molecules bound to a protein that facilitate its function. Prosthetic groups include coenzymes, which are the prosthetic groups of enzymes. The enzyme in complex I is NADH dehydrogenase and is a very large protein, containing 45 amino acid chains. Complex I can pump four hydrogen ions across the membrane from the matrix into the intermembrane space, and it is in this way that the hydrogen ion gradient is established and maintained between the two compartments separated by the inner mitochondrial membrane.

Q and Complex II

Complex II directly receives FADH2—which does not pass through complex I. The compound connecting the first and second complexes to the third is ubiquinone B. The Q molecule is lipid soluble and freely moves through the hydrophobic core of the membrane. Once it is reduced (QH2), ubiquinone delivers its electrons to the next complex in the electron transport chain. Q receives the electrons derived from NADH from complex I, and the electrons derived from FADH2 from complex II. This enzyme and FADH2 form a small complex that delivers electrons directly to the electron transport chain, bypassing the first complex. Since these electrons bypass and thus do not energize the proton pump in the first complex, fewer ATP molecules are made from the FADH2 electrons. The number of ATP molecules ultimately obtained is directly proportional to the number of protons pumped across the inner mitochondrial membrane.

– What is a tightly bound, specific non-polypeptide unit required for the biological function of some proteins?

Complex III

The third complex is composed of cytochrome b—another Fe-S protein, a Rieske center (2Fe-2S center), and cytochrome c proteins. This complex is also called cytochrome oxidoreductase. Cytochrome proteins have a prosthetic group of heme. The heme molecule is similar to the heme in hemoglobin, but it carries electrons, not oxygen. As a result, the iron ion at its core is reduced and oxidized as it passes the electrons, fluctuating between different oxidation states: Fe++ (reduced) and Fe+++ (oxidized). The heme molecules in the cytochromes have slightly different characteristics due to the effects of the different proteins binding to them, giving slightly different characteristics to each complex. Complex III pumps protons through the membrane and passes its electrons to cytochrome c for transport to the fourth complex of proteins and enzymes. (Cytochrome c receives electrons from Q; however, whereas Q carries pairs of electrons, cytochrome c can accept only one at a time.)

Complex IV

The fourth complex is composed of cytochrome proteins c, a, and a3. This complex contains two heme groups (one in each of the two cytochromes, a, and a3) and three copper ions (a pair of CuA and one CuB in cytochrome a3). The cytochromes hold an oxygen molecule very tightly between the iron and copper ions until the oxygen is completely reduced by the gain of two electrons. The reduced oxygen then picks up two hydrogen ions from the surrounding medium to make water (H2O). The removal of the hydrogen ions from the system contributes to the ion gradient that forms the foundation for the process of chemiosmosis.

Respiratory chain complexes are multi-subunit structures localized to the inner mitochondrial membrane comprised of proteins, prosthetic groups such as metal ions and iron-sulfur centers, and cofactors including coenzyme Q10. The vast majority of respiratory chain proteins are encoded in the nuclear genome, translated in the cytoplasm, transported to the mitochondria, taken up through the inner membrane by complex import mechanisms, and then assembled with the appropriate prosthetic group or metal ion. Genetic disorders associated with many of the key components of respiratory chain assembly and function have been described. Many are associated with early age of onset and phenotypes including encephalopathy, cardiomyopathy, and severe lactic acidosis.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e





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