What is ATP synthase and why is it essential for cellular metabolism?

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In summary, Paul D. Boyer, a 1997 Nobel Prize winner, recently died at 99 years old. He did important work on one of the most interesting and important cellular enzymes, ATP synthase. His work has led people to compare it to a turbine.
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BillTre
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Paul D. Boyer a 1997 Nobel Prize winner, recently died. He was 99 years old.
Among other things, he did important work on one of the most interesting and important of cellular enzymes, ATP synthase.

ATP synthase is important since it is central to the cell's production of ATP which powers a large proportion of cellular metabolism.
The ATP synthase is:
  • conserved among all cellular life (indicating it was inherited from the Last Universal Common Ancestor and arose very early in life)
  • large and has an extremely complex structure
  • and runs on differences in proton (H+) concentrations across the cellular (or mitochondrial) membrane.
Its passes a proton from one side of the membrane into a rotating protein ring embedded in the cell membrane which causes the ring to rotate with respect to an outer non-rotating protein ring before the proton is released on the other side of the membrane. It can rotate at hundreds of revolutions per second. Its structure/function has lead people to compare it to a turbine.
The ring rotation in turn rotates an non-symmetrical axle the in turn bonks a ring of non-rotating ATPase enzymes, changing their conformation as it goes around and catalyzing ADP plus Pi to form ATP.
It can also be driven in reverse (pumping protons) by high ATP concentrations.

This stuff was not yet taught when I took biochemistry. I only found out about ATP synthase structure and function recently. Its complexity and early evolutionary origin are remarkable.

Here is a link to a recent high resolution analysis of ATP synthase (probably pay-walled).
 
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Jens Christian Skou (with whom Boyer shared the Nobel) also passed away less than 2 weeks ago. Crazy. Edit: Skou was also 99 years old!
 
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Boyer was faculty at my alma matter (UCLA), and I used to work in the institute he founded (the Molecular Biology Institute) in the building named after him (Boyer Hall). ATP synthase is such an amazing enzyme, and his work will always live on as a part of biology textbooks that helps inspire students like me to look into the fascinating worlds of molecular biology, biochemistry and biophysics.
 
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Here is a nice little video on how the ATP synthase works:
 

1. Who is Paul Boyer?

Paul Boyer was an American biochemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1997 for his contributions to the understanding of ATP synthase, a key enzyme involved in cellular energy production.

2. What is ATP synthase?

ATP synthase is a large protein complex found in the inner membrane of mitochondria, as well as in the cell membranes of bacteria and chloroplasts. It is responsible for the production of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the main energy currency of the cell.

3. How does ATP synthase work?

ATP synthase works by using the energy from a proton gradient across the inner membrane of the mitochondria to drive the synthesis of ATP from ADP (adenosine diphosphate) and inorganic phosphate. This process is known as oxidative phosphorylation.

4. What was Boyer's contribution to the understanding of ATP synthase?

Paul Boyer proposed the chemiosmotic theory, which explains how the proton gradient generated by electron transport in the mitochondria is used to drive the synthesis of ATP by ATP synthase. He also discovered the binding change mechanism, which explains how ATP synthase changes shape to produce ATP.

5. Why is understanding ATP synthase important?

ATP synthase is a vital enzyme for all living organisms, as it is responsible for producing the energy needed for cellular processes. Understanding how it works can help us develop treatments for diseases related to energy production, as well as improve our understanding of evolution and the origins of life on Earth.

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