Most chemical compounds do not combine with one another automatically, nor do chemical compounds break apart automatically. The great majority of the chemical reactions that occur within living things must be energized. This means that the atoms of a molecule must be separated by energy put into the system. The energy forces apart the atoms in the molecules and allows the reaction to take place.
To initiate a chemical reaction, a type of “spark,” referred to as the energy of activation, is needed. For example, hydrogen and oxygen can combine to form water at room temperature, but the reaction requires activation energy.
Any chemical reaction in which energy is released is called an exergonic reaction. In an exergonic chemical reaction, the products end up with less energy than the reactants. Other chemical reactions are endergonic reactions. In endergonic reactions, energy is obtained and trapped from the environment. The products of endergonic reactions have more energy than the reactants taking part in the chemical reaction. For example, plants carry out the process of photosynthesis, in which they trap energy from the sun to form carbohydrates (see Chapter 5).
The activation energy needed to spark an exergonic or endergonic reaction can be heat energy or chemical energy. Reactions that require activation energy can also proceed in the presence of biological catalysts. Catalysts are substances that speed up chemical reactions but remain unchanged themselves. Catalysts work by lowering the required amount of activation energy for the chemical reaction. For example, hydrogen and oxygen combine with one another in the presence of platinum. In this case, platinum is the catalyst. In biological systems, the most common catalysts are protein molecules called enzymes. Enzymes are absolutely essential if chemical reactions are to occur in cells.