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Organisms store energy from food and sunlight as an electrochemical gradient across the membranes of mitochondria, chloroplasts and bacteria. The gradient arises from differences in the concentration of protons and ions on the negative (N) and positive (P) sides of these membranes. This perspective describes how the proton gradient is formed. One strategy is the movement of electrons but not protons across a membrane-embedded protein from a site of proton-releasing oxidative chemistry on the P-side of the protein to a site of proton-binding reductive chemistry on the N-side. Alternately, protons are directly pumped across membrane-embedded proteins, which have gated proton transfer pathways that are opened and closed, as well as internal sites where the proton affinity varies as the protein goes through the reaction cycle. The molecules that carry out these roles are complex, utilizing non-amino acid cofactors and earth-abundant metals. However, these are also potential sources of high-energy toxic byproducts. Understanding these reactions can open the door to their rational redesign, with possible beneficial effects as far-reaching as improving the global food supply, preventing neurodegenerative diseases, and better understanding the role of metabolism in aging.


M R Gunner, Ronald Koder. The design features cells use to build their transmembrane proton gradient. Physical biology. 2017 Feb 07;14(1):013001

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PMID: 28169227

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