Fermentation is an anaerobic process in which energy can be released from glucose even though oxygen is not available. Fermentation occurs in yeast cells, and a form of fermentation takes place in bacteria and in the muscle cells of animals.
In yeast cells (the yeast used for baking bread and producing alcoholic beverages), glucose can be metabolized through cellular respiration as in other cells. When oxygen is lacking, however, glucose is still metabolized to pyruvic acid via glycolysis. The pyruvic acid is converted first to acetaldehyde and then to ethyl alcohol. The net gain of ATP to the yeast cell is two molecules—the two molecules of ATP normally produced in glycolysis.
Yeasts are able to participate in fermentation because they have the necessary enzyme to convert pyruvic acid to ethyl alcohol. This process is essential because it removes electrons and hydrogen ions from NADH during glycolysis. The effect is to free the NAD so it can participate in future reactions of glycolysis. The net gain to the yeast cell of two ATP molecules permits it to remain alive for some time. However, when the percentage of ethyl alcohol reaches approximately 15 percent, the alcohol kills the yeast cells.
Yeast is used in both bread and alcohol production. Alcohol fermentation is the process that yields beer, wine, and other spirits. The carbon dioxide given off during fermentation supplements the carbon dioxide given off during the Krebs cycle and causes bread to rise.
In muscle cells, another form of fermentation takes place. When muscle cells contract too frequently (as in strenuous exercise), they rapidly use up their oxygen supply. As a result, the electron transport system and Krebs cycle slow considerably, and ATP production is slowed. However, muscle cells have the ability to produce a small amount of ATP through glycolysis in the absence of oxygen. The muscle cells convert glucose to pyruvic acid. An enzyme in the muscle cells then converts the pyruvic acid to lactic acid. As in the yeast, this reaction frees up the NAD while providing the cells with two ATP molecules from glycolysis. Eventually, however, the lactic acid buildup causes intense fatigue, and the muscle stops contracting.