3. Enzymes, and their activities

Enzymes form complexes with their substrates

We often describe an enzyme-catalysed reaction as proceeding through three stages as follows:E + S → ES complex → E + P

The ES complex represents a position where the substrate (S) is bound to the enzyme (E) such that the reaction (whatever it might be) is made more favourable. As soon as the reaction has occurred, the product molecule (P) dissociates from the enzyme, which is then free to bind to another substrate molecule. At some point during this process the substrate is converted into an intermediate form (often called the transition state) and then into the product.

The exact mechanism whereby the enzyme acts to increase the rate of the reaction differs from one system to another. However, the general principle is that by binding of the substrate to the enzyme, the reaction involving the substrate is made more favourable by lowering the activation energy of the reaction.

In terms of energetics, reactions can be either exergonic (releasing energy) or endergonic (consuming energy). However, even in an exergonic reaction a small amount of energy, termed the activation energy, is needed to give the reaction a ‘kick start.’ A good analogy is that of a match, the head of which contains a mixture of energy-rich chemicals (phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate). When a match burns it releases substantial amounts of light and heat energy (exergonically reacting with O2 in the air). However, and perhaps fortunately, a match will not spontaneously ignite, but rather a small input of energy in the form of heat generated through friction (i.e. striking of the match) is needed to initiate the reaction. Of course once the match has been struck the amount of energy released is considerable, and greatly exceeds the small energy input during the striking process.

As shown in the image, enzymes are considered to lower the activation energy of a system by making it energetically easier for the transition state to form. In the presence of an enzyme catalyst, the formation of the transition state is energetically more favourable (i.e. it requires less energy for the ‘kick start’), thereby accelerating the rate at which the reaction will proceed, but not fundamentally changing the energy levels of either the reactant or the product.

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