ATP molecule as a coin in a slot machine

“Adenosine Tri Phosphate (ATP) works like a coin in a slot machine. It powers on to turn as a machine that promptly shuts down again afterward. In the case of ATP, the machine is typically a protein. ATP powers a change from one stable state to another, like flipping a switch from up to down. To flip it back again requires another ATP, just as you have to insert another coin in the slot machine to have a second go”.

The above paragraph describes how the ATP molecule assists living cells to produce energy. Nick Lane, a renowned evolutionary biochemist at the University College London, England uses a slot machine as a metaphor in his latest book: The Vital Question.

Nick Lane

How spectacular and vivid his description is!

Then, read the following text that describes the ATP molecule’s place in a cell.

“Picture the cell as a giant amusement arcade, filled with protein machinery, all powered by ATP cions in this way. A single cell consumes around 10 million molecules of ATP every second! The number of breathtaking. There are about 40 million cells in the human body, giving around a total turnover of ATP around 60-100 KG per day. In fact, we contain only 60 grams of ATP. So, we know that every molecule is recharged once or twice a minute. Recharged? When ATP is split, it releases free energy that powers the charge as well as releasing enough heat”.

The saga in the mitochondrial engine room

Now immerse into the mitochondrial engine room. The following are his own words;

“Take a dizzying ride down into one of your cells. Let’s say a heart muscle cell. Its rhythmic contractions are powered by ATO, which is flooding out from many large mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Shrink yourself down to the size of an ATP molecule and zoom in through a large protein pore in the external membrane of a mitochondrion. We find ourselves in a confined space, like the engine room of a boat, packed with overheating protein machinery, stretching as far as eyes can see. The ground is bubbling with what looks like little balls, which shoot out from the machine, appearing and disappearing in milliseconds”.

This is not all.

He vividly dramatizes the this highly charged, action-packed, non-stopping mitochondrial engine room saga.

This was one of the best science narrations I have read to date.

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Author: Prasantha De Silva

A specialist in Community Medicine board-certified in Sri Lanka and a research analyst in Canada

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