I’m trying to understand some biology. Being a mathematician I’m less interested in all the complicated details of life on this particular planet than in something a bit more abstract. I want to know ‘the language of life’: the right way to talk about living systems.
Of course, there’s no way to reach this goal without learning a lot of the complicated details. But I might as well be honest and state my goal, since it’s bound to put a strange spin on how I learn and talk about biology.
For example, when I heard people were using the pi-calculus to model a very simple bacterium, I wasn’t eager to know how close their model is to the Last Universal Ancestor, the primordial bug from which we all descend. Even though it’s a fascinating question, it’s not one I can help solve. Instead, I wanted to know if the pi-calculus is really the best language for this kind of model.
I also wanted to know what types of chemical reactions are needed for a cell to survive. I’ll never remember all the details of those reactions: I don’t have the right kind of mind for that. But I might manage to think about these reactions in abstract ways that biologists haven’t tried.
So, when I read this:
The minimal gene set prokaryote has been exhaustively described in the enhanced π-calculus. We represented the 237 genes, their relative products, and the metabolic pathways expressed and regulated by the genes, as the corresponding processes and channels. In particular: the glycolytic pathway, the pentose phosphate pathway, the pathways involved in nucleotide, aminoacids, coenzyme, lipids, and glycerol metabolism.
I instantly wanted to get an overall view of these reactions, without immersing myself in all the details.
Unfortunately I don’t know how to do this. Do you?
It might be like trying to learn grammar without learning vocabulary: not very easy, and perhaps unwise.
But I bet there’s a biochemistry textbook that would help me: one that focuses on the forest before getting into the names of all the trees. I may have even seen a such book! I’ve certainly tried to learn biochemistry. It’s a perfectly fascinating subject. But it’s only recently that I’ve gotten serious about chemical reaction networks and nonequilibrium thermodynamics. this may help guide my studies now.
Anyway, let me start with the ‘glycolytic pathway’. Glycolysis is the process of breaking down a sugar called glucose, thereby powering the formation of ATP, which holds energy in a form that the cell can easily use to do many things.
Glycolysis looks pretty complicated, at least if you’re a mathematician:
But when you’re trying to understand the activities of a complicated criminal network, a good slogan is ‘follow the money’. And for a chemical reaction network, you can ‘follow the conserved quantities’. We’ve got various kinds of atoms—hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus—and the number of each kind is conserved. That should help us follow what’s going on.
Energy is also conserved, and that’s incredibly important in thermodynamics. Free energy—energy in forms that are actually useful—is not conserved. But it’s still very good to follow it, since while it can go away, turning into heat, it essentially never appears out of nowhere.
The usual definition of free energy is something like
where is energy, is temperature and is entropy. You can think of this roughly “energy minus energy in the form of heat”. There’s a lot more to say here, but I just want to add that free energy can also be interpreted as ‘relative information’, a purely information-theoretic concept. For an explanation, see Section 4 of this paper:
Since I like abstract generalities, this information-theoretic way of understanding free energy appeals to me.
And of course free energy is useful, so an organism should care about it—and we should be able to track what an organism actually does with it. This is one of my main goals: understanding better what it means for a system to ‘do something with free energy’.
In glycolysis, some of the free energy of glucose gets transferred to ATP. ATP is a bit like ‘money’: it carries free energy in a way that the cell can easily ‘spend’ to do interesting things. So, at some point I want to look at an example of how the cell actually spends this money. But for now I want to think about glycolysis—which may be more like ‘cashing a check and getting money’.
First, let’s see what we get if we ‘black-box’ glycolysis. I’ve written about black-boxing electrical circuits and Markov processes: it’s a way to ignore their inner workings and focus on the relation between inputs and outputs.
Blake Pollard and I are starting to study the black-boxing of chemical reaction networks. If we black-box glycolysis, we get this:
2 pyruvate + 2 NADH + 2 H+ + 2 ATP + 2 H2O
I’ll talk about NAD+ and NADH later; let’s temporarily ignore those.
A molecule of glucose has more free energy than 2 pyruvate molecules plus 2 water molecules. On the other hand, ADP + phosphate has less free energy than ATP. So, glycolysis is taking free energy from glucose and putting some of it into the handy form of ATP molecules. And a natural question is: how efficient is this reaction? How much free energy gets wasted?
Here’s an interesting paper that touches indirectly on this question:
• Daniel A. Beard, Eric Babson, Edward Curtis and Hong Qian, Thermodynamic constraints for biochemical networks, Journal of Theoretical Biology 228 (2004), 327–333.
They develop a bunch of machinery for studying chemical reaction networks, which I hope to explain someday. (Mathematicians will be delighted to hear that they use matroids, a general framework for studying linear dependence. Biochemists may be less delighted.) Then they apply this machinery to glycolysis, using computers to do some calculations, and they conclude:
Returning to the original problem of ATP production in energy metabolism, and searching for the flux vector that maximizes ATP production while satisfying the
mass balance constraint and the thermodynamic constraint, we find that at most 20.5 ATP are produced for each glucose molecule consumed.
So, they’re getting some upper bound on how good glycolysis could actually be!
Puzzle 1. What upper bounds can you get simply from free energy considerations?
For example, ignore NADH and NAD+ for a second, and ask how much ATP you could make from turning a molecule of glucose into pyruvate and water if free energy were the only consideration. To answer this, you could take the free energy of a mole glucose minus the free energy of the corresponding amount of pyruvate and water, and divide it by the free energy of a mole of ATP minus the free energy of the corresponding amount of ADP and phosphate. What do you get?
Puzzle 2. How do NADH and NAD+ fit into the story? In the last paragraph I ignored those. We shouldn’t really do that! NAD+ is an oxidized form of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. NADH is the the reduced form of the same chemical. In our cells, NADH has more free energy than NAD+. So, besides producing ‘free energy money’ in the form of ATP, glycolysis is producing it in the form of NADH! This should improve our upper bound on how much ATP could be produced by glycolysis.
However, the cell uses NADH for more than just ‘money’. It uses NADH to oxidize other chemicals and NAD+ to reduce them. Reduction and oxidation are really important in chemistry, including biochemistry. I need to understand this whole redox business better. Right now my guess is that it’s connected to yet another conserved quantity, which I haven’t mentioned so far.
Puzzle 3. What conserved quantity is that?