Copyright © 2000-2003 Mark Brandt, Ph.D. 15
Glucose is a valuable molecule. It can be used to generate energy (in red blood cells
and in brain under normal conditions, glucose is the sole energy source), and it can
be used to generate a wide variety of intermediates required for a range of
We will begin with a discussion of glycolysis, the catabolic conversion of glucose into
energy with the production of either pyruvate or waste products. It is important to
remember, however, that energy generation is not the only purpose of the pathway,
and that in many cell types the formation of glucose metabolites with critical
biological roles is as important as the energy produced during the pathway.
Overview of Glycolysis
Under anaerobic conditions, the glycolytic pathway present in most species results
in a balanced reaction:
Glucose + 2 ADP + 2 inorganic phosphate Æ 2 L-Lactic acid + 2 ATP + H2O
In yeast and some other microorganisms, the final products are ethanol and carbon
dioxide rather than lactate. The production of either ethanol or lactate is often
Glycolysis can be a very fast pathway; under anaerobic conditions, glycolysis results
in rapid generation of relatively small amounts of ATP and large amounts of waste
products. This is of benefit to the organism when rapid ATP generation is required.
Under aerobic conditions, the reaction is slightly different:
Glucose + 2 ADP + 2 phosphate + 2 NAD Æ 2 Pyruvate + 2 ATP + 2 NADH + H2O
The pyruvate and NADH can be used to generate large amounts of additional
energy via the TCA cycle and the oxygen-requiring pathway of oxidative
This raises an interesting question: Why perform anaerobic glycolysis if the TCA
cycle and oxidative phosphorylation pathways generate much more energy?
As mentioned above glycolysis is a fast pathway; in some situations the flow of
glucose through the glycolytic pathway can greatly exceed the capacity of the TCA
cycle and oxidative phosphorylation pathways to metabolize the pyruvate and
NADH produced. This is true in skeletal muscle during heavy exercise; under these
conditions, the muscle converts the excess pyruvate to lactate.
Lactate generation serves two purposes: it regenerates the NAD required for
additional glycolysis, and it produces a byproduct (lactic acid) that can be exported
from the cell. The release of lactic acid has a minor drawback: it also releases
protons, and therefore decreases the pH in the environment surrounding the cell.
This pH decrease is the cause of the “burn”: the sensation in muscles that signals
Copyright © 2000-2003 Mark Brandt, Ph.D. 16
the limit of anaerobic exercise. (Note: it is not the lactate build-up, but rather the
pH change that is responsible for necessity to terminate exercise.) Although it is not
entirely beneficial to pollute the extracellular environment with protons, it is clearly
better than allowing the protons to build up within the cell, which would happen if
the lactate (or pyruvate) were not exported.
Regulation of glucose metabolism
Single-celled organisms usually take up and utilize glucose as rapidly as they
possibly can. When exposed to large amounts of glucose they tend to shift to
anaerobic metabolism, and therefore waste large amounts of the available energy.
This process has its uses for the organism: the generation of energy is so rapid that
cells using anaerobic glycolysis grow faster than cells using the more energy
efficient, but much slower, oxidation of pyruvate. The fact that some
microorganisms perform primarily anaerobic glycolysis under some conditions is
also of benefit to humans: the production of ethanol and carbon dioxide from glucose
is used for beer, wine, and bread production.
In multicellular organisms, cells must cooperate. If one cell uses up too much
glucose, it may adversely affect other cells in the organism, possibly leading to the
death of the entire organism, including the offending cell. As a result, glucose
metabolism (and many other cell life-cycle functions) is tightly regulated in most
This regulation occurs at several points in the glucose metabolic pathways. In
humans, the regulatory points include:
1) The transport of glucose into the cell
2) The conversion of glucose to glucose-6-phosphate
3) Two enzymatic steps in the glycolytic pathway (phosphofructokinase and
4) The flow of glucose into or out of other pathways (glycogen and hexose-
The coordinated regulation of these pathways requires an influence from outside
the individual cell. Systemic hormones provide this influence: signaling molecules
released into circulation that alter behavior of most cells throughout the organism.
Copyright © 2000-2003 Mark Brandt, Ph.D. 17
In mammals five hormones regulate plasma glucose levels and the rate of glycolysis:
insulin, glucagon, epinephrine, cortisol, and growth hormone.
Insulin results in decreased plasma glucose; all of the other hormones listed raise
A detailed description of the actions of these hormones is outside the scope of this
course. (For those interested, the “Endocrine Notes” section of the course web site
contains considerable information about the role of these hormones in the
regulation of metabolism.) For our purposes, insulin and glucagon are the primary
regulatory hormones that maintain normal plasma glucose levels; the other
hormones alter plasma glucose for specific purposes, or attempt to counter excessive
Insulin, glucagon, and epinephrine regulate the activity of existing control
enzymes, usually by stimulating phosphorylation or dephosphorylation of proteins.
Insulin, cortisol, and to a lesser extent, glucagon, alter the rates of gene
transcription and of protein degradation, and therefore alter the amounts of
Glucose cannot diffuse through membranes. As a result, cells must have a transport
protein that allows the glucose to cross the membrane. Most cells have passive
transporters, which are proteins that act as enzymes to move the glucose from high
to low concentration. For most cells, glucose transport is not limiting and is not
Skeletal muscle and adipose tissue, however, have a specialized glucose transporter
that is tightly regulated. The glucose transporter in these cells is normally
sequestered in intracellular vesicles; stimulation of the cell (by insulin, or, in the
Copyright © 2000-2003 Mark Brandt, Ph.D. 18
case of skeletal muscle, by muscle contraction) results in fusion of the vesicles with
the plasma membrane, and therefore in a rapid increase in the number of
transporters in the membrane. Assuming that the cellular concentration of glucose
is lower than that outside the cell, an increase in the number of transporters results
in an increase in the rate of transport of glucose (in the same way that an increase
in enzyme concentration results in an increase in rate of product formation).
The second site of regulation occurs inside the cell, when the glucose is
phosphorylated to produce glucose-6-phosphate. The purpose of the reaction is to
alter the concentration gradient (because once glucose has been phosphorylated, it
is no longer glucose), and to lock glucose-6-phosphate in the cell (because glucose-6-
phosphate cannot be transported by the glucose transporter). In all cells, the
phosphorylation of glucose is a regulated step, although the regulation differs
somewhat depending on the cell type.
The phosphorylation of glucose is performed by two different isozymes. One is
hexokinase, which is present in most tissues. Hexokinase has a high affinity for
glucose. Most tissues refrain from wasteful glucose uptake because hexokinase is
inhibited by its product glucose-6-phosphate. Muscle cells have a high concentration
of hexokinase; muscle cell phosphorylation of glucose is usually regulated by glucose
uptake (i.e. by the glucose transporter), and not by hexokinase activity. This is
especially obvious during muscle contraction, when glucose-6-phosphate utilization
tends to be very rapid, and therefore prevents inhibition of hexokinase.
The liver and pancreas have a different isoenzyme, glucokinase. Glucokinase has
Copyright © 2000-2003 Mark Brandt, Ph.D. 19
a low affinity for glucose, and is not inhibited by glucose-6-phosphate; instead,
the concentration of glucokinase is increased by insulin. The activity of glucokinase
is also regulated by glucose concentration. The enzyme has a K0.5 for glucose of ~10
mM, which is higher than the typical blood concentration of 5 mM, and therefore
the rate of the reaction increases significantly with increasing substrate
In the graph above, glucokinase activity is shown as exhibiting positive
cooperativity (n = 1.5); this has been observed, but the reason for the cooperative
behavior is not understood, because the protein is thought to be monomeric. Note
that near the typical blood concentration of glucose (~5 mM), hexokinase is
operating near Vmax, while glucokinase activity changes essentially linearly with
changes in glucose concentration.
The mechanism of hexokinase illustrates an important point about enzyme
mechanisms. One potential problem with phosphorylation events, such as the
hexokinase reaction, that use ATP as the phosphate donor is that ATP hydrolysis is
more energetically favorable than phosphate transfer to the substrate. The enzyme
must prevent ATP hydrolysis in spite of the high concentration of H2O i