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The electron transport chain consists of a spatially separated series of redox reactions in which electrons are transferred from a donor molecule to an acceptor molecule. The underlying force driving these reactions is the Gibbs free energy of the reactants and products. The Gibbs free energy is the energy available ("free") to do work. Any reaction that decreases the overall Gibbs free energy of a system is thermodynamically spontaneous.

The function of the electron transport chain is to produce a transmembrane proton electrochemical gradient as a result of the redox reactions.If protons flow back through the membrane, they enable mechanical work, such as rotating bacterial flagella. ATP synthase, an enzyme highly conserved among all domains of life, converts this mechanical work into chemical energy by producing ATP, which powers most cellular reactions. A small amount of ATP is available from substrate-level phosphorylation, for example, in glycolysis. In most organisms the majority of ATP is generated in electron transport chains, while only some obtain ATP by fermentation