How do enzymes work? The broad answer to this question is that they do not alter the equilibrium (i.e. the thermodynamics) of a reaction. This is because enzymes do not fundamentally change the structure and energetics of the products and reagents, but rather they simply allow the reaction equilibrium to be attained more rapidly. Let us therefore begin by clarifying the concept of chemical equilibrium.
In many cases the equilibrium of a reaction is far ‘to the right’—that is, virtually all of the substrate (S) is converted into product (P). For this reason, reactions are often written as follows:S → P
This is a simplification, as in all cases it is more correct to write this reaction as follows:S ⇌ P
This indicates the presence of an equilibrium. To understand this concept it is perhaps most helpful to look at a reaction where the equilibrium point is quite central.
For example:Glucose⇌Glucose isomeraseFructose
In this reaction, if we start with a solution of 1 mol l−1 glucose and add the enzyme, then upon completion we will have a mixture of approximately 0.5 mol l−1 glucose and 0.5 mol l−1 fructose. This is the equilibrium point of this particular reaction, and although it may only take a couple of seconds to reach this end point with the enzyme present, we would in fact come to the same point if we put glucose into solution and waited many months for the reaction to occur in the absence of the enzyme. Interestingly, we could also have started this reaction with a 1 mol l−1 fructose solution, and it would have proceeded in the opposite direction until the same equilibrium point had been reached.
The equilibrium point for this reaction is expressed by the equilibrium constant Keq as follows:Keq=Substrate concentration at end pointSubstrate concentration at end point=0.50.5=1
Thus for a reaction with central equilibrium, Keq = 1, for an equilibrium ‘to the right’ Keq is >1, and for an equilibrium ‘to the left’ Keq is <1.
Therefore if a reaction has a Keq value of 106, the equilibrium is very far to the right and can be simplified by denoting it as a single arrow. We may often describe this type of reaction as ‘going to completion’. Conversely, if a reaction has a Keq value of 10−6, the equilibrium is very far to the left, and for all practical purposes it would not really be considered to proceed at all.
It should be noted that although the concentration of reactants has no effect on the equilibrium point, environmental factors such as pH and temperature can and do affect the position of the equilibrium.
It should also be noted that any biochemical reaction which occurs in vivo in a living system does not occur in isolation, but as part of a metabolic pathway, which makes it more difficult to conceptualize the relationship between reactants and reactions. In vivo reactions are not allowed to proceed to their equilibrium position. If they did, the reaction would essentially stop (i.e. the forward and reverse reactions would balance each other), and there would be no net flux through the pathway. However, in many complex biochemical pathways some of the individual reaction steps are close to equilibrium, whereas others are far from equilibrium, the latter (catalysed by regulatory enzymes) having the greatest capacity to control the overall flux of materials through the pathway.