The electron transport system occurs in the cristae of the mitochondria, where a series of cytochromes (enzymes) and coenzymes exist. These cytochromes and coenzymes act as carrier molecules and transfer molecules. They accept high-energy electrons and pass the electrons to the next molecule in the system. At key proton-pumping sites, the energy of the electrons transports protons across the membrane into the outer compartment of the mitochondrion.
Each NADH molecule is highly energetic, which accounts for the transfer of six protons into the outer compartment of the mitochondrion. Each FADH2 molecule accounts for the transfer of four protons. The flow of electrons is similar to that taking place in photosynthesis. Electrons pass from NAD to FAD, to other cytochromes and coenzymes, and eventually they lose much of their energy. In cellular respiration, the final electron acceptor is an oxygen atom. In their energy-depleted condition, the electrons unite with an oxygen atom. The electron-oxygen combination then reacts with two hydrogen ions (protons) to form a water molecule (H2O).
The role of oxygen in cellular respiration is substantial. As a final electron acceptor, it is responsible for removing electrons from the electron transport system. If oxygen were not available, electrons could not be passed among the coenzymes, the energy in electrons could not be released, the proton pump could not be established, and ATP could not be produced. In humans, breathing is the essential process that brings oxygen into the body for delivery to the cells to participate in cellular respiration.