The Electron Transport System


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The bacterial electron transport chain is a series of protein complexes, electron carriers, and ion pumps that is used to pump H+ out of the bacterial cytoplasm into the extracellular space. H+ flows back down the electrochemical gradient into the bacterial cytoplasm through ATP synthase, providing the energy for ATP production by oxidative phosphorylation.(credit: modification of work by Klaus Hoffmeier)

OpenStax Microbiology

The electron transport system (ETS) is the last component involved in the process of cellular respiration; it comprises a series of membrane-associated protein complexes and associated mobile accessory electron carriers. Electron transport is a series of chemical reactions that resembles a bucket brigade in that electrons from NADH and FADH2 are passed rapidly from one ETS electron carrier to the next. These carriers can pass electrons along in the ETS because of their redox potential. For a protein or chemical to accept electrons, it must have a more positive redox potential than the electron donor. Therefore, electrons move from electron carriers with more negative redox potential to those with more positive redox potential. The four major classes of electron carriers involved in both eukaryotic and prokaryotic electron transport systems are the cytochromes, flavoproteins, iron-sulfur proteins, and the quinones.

In aerobic respiration, the final electron acceptor (i.e., the one having the most positive redox potential) at the end of the ETS is an oxygen molecule (O2) that becomes reduced to water (H2O) by the final ETS carrier. This electron carrier, cytochrome oxidase, differs between bacterial types and can be used to differentiate closely related bacteria for diagnoses. For example, the gram-negative opportunist Pseudomonas aeruginosa and the gram-negative choleracausing Vibrio cholerae use cytochrome c oxidase, which can be detected by the oxidase test, whereas other gramnegative Enterobacteriaceae, like E. coli, are negative for this test because they produce different cytochrome oxidase types.

There are many circumstances under which aerobic respiration is not possible, including any one or more of the following:

• The cell lacks genes encoding an appropriate cytochrome oxidase for transferring electrons to oxygen at the end of the electron transport system.

• The cell lacks genes encoding enzymes to minimize the severely damaging effects of dangerous oxygen radicals produced during aerobic respiration, such as hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) or superoxide (02-).

• The cell lacks a sufficient amount of oxygen to carry out aerobic respiration.

One possible alternative to aerobic respiration is anaerobic respiration, using an inorganic molecule other than oxygen as a final electron acceptor. There are many types of anaerobic respiration found in bacteria and archaea.

Denitrifiers are important soil bacteria that use nitrate (NO3-) and nitrite (NO2-) as final electron acceptors, producing nitrogen gas (N2). Many aerobically respiring bacteria, including E. coli, switch to using nitrate as a final electron acceptor and producing nitrite when oxygen levels have been depleted.

Microbes using anaerobic respiration commonly have an intact Krebs cycle, so these organisms can access the energy of the NADH and FADH2 molecules formed. However, anaerobic respirers use altered ETS carriers encoded by their genomes, including distinct complexes for electron transfer to their final electron acceptors. Smaller electrochemical gradients are generated from these electron transfer systems, so less ATP is formed through anaerobic respiration.


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