The chemical reactions in all cells of living things operate in the presence of biological catalysts called enzymes. Because a particular enzyme catalyzes only one reaction, there are thousands of different enzymes in a cell catalyzing thousands of different chemical reactions. The substance changed or acted on by an enzyme is its substrate. The products of a chemical reaction catalyzed by an enzyme are end products.

All enzymes are composed of proteins. (Proteins are chains of amino acids; see Chapter 2.) When an enzyme functions, a key portion of the enzyme, called the active site, interacts with the substrate. The active site closely matches the molecular configuration of the substrate. After this interaction has taken place, a change in shape in the active site places a physical stress on the substrate. This physical stress aids the alteration of the substrate and produces the end products. During the time the active site is associated with the substrate, the combination is referred to as the enzyme-substrate complex. After the enzyme has performed its work, the product or products are released from the enzyme’s active site. The enzyme is then free to function in another chemical reaction.

Enzyme-catalyzed reactions occur extremely fast. They happen about a million times faster than uncatalyzed reactions. With some exceptions, the names of enzymes end in “–ase.” For example, the enzyme that breaks down hydrogen peroxide to water and hydrogen is catalase. Other enzymes include amylase, hydrolase, peptidase, and kinase.

The rate of an enzyme-catalyzed reaction depends on a number of factors, such as the concentration of the substrate, the acidity and temperature of the environment, and the presence of other chemicals. At higher temperatures, enzyme reactions occur more rapidly, but only up to a point. Because enzymes are proteins, excessive amounts of heat can change their structures, rendering them inactive. An enzyme altered by heat is said to be denatured.

Enzymes work together in metabolic pathways. A metabolic pathway is a sequence of chemical reactions occurring in a cell. A single enzyme-catalyzed reaction may be one of multiple reactions in a metabolic pathway. Metabolic pathways may be of two general types: catabolic and anabolic. Catabolic pathways involve the breakdown or digestion of large, complex molecules. The general term for this process is catabolism. Anabolic pathways involve the synthesis of large molecules, generally by joining smaller molecules together. The general term for this process is anabolism.

Many enzymes are assisted by chemical substances called cofactors. Cofactors may be ions or molecules associated with an enzyme and are required in order for a chemical reaction to take place. Ions that might operate as cofactors include those of iron, manganese, and zinc. Organic molecules acting as cofactors are referred to as coenzymes. Examples of coenzymes are NAD and FAD (see the “ATP Production” section later in this chapter).