Substrate-level phosphorylation

Substrate-level phosphorylation exemplified with the conversion of ADP to ATP

Substrate-level phosphorylation is a metabolic reaction that results in the formation of ATP or GTP by the direct transfer of a phosphoryl (PO3) group to ADP or GDP from another phosphorylated compound.

Unlike oxidative phosphorylation, oxidation and phosphorylation are not coupled in the process of substrate-level phosphorylation, and reactive intermediates are most often gained in the course of oxidation processes in catabolism. Most ATP is generated by oxidative phosphorylation in aerobic or anaerobic respiration while substrate-level phosphorylation provides a quicker, less efficient source of ATP, independent of external electron acceptors. This is the case in human erythrocytes, which have no mitochondria, and in oxygen-depleted muscle.


Substrate-level phosphorylation occurs in the cytoplasm of cells during glycolysis and in mitochondria during the Krebs cycle under both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. In the pay-off phase of glycolysis, a net of 2 ATP are produced by substrate-level phosphorylation.


Main article: Glycolysis

The first substrate-level phosphorylation occurs after the conversion of 3-phosphoglyceraldehyde and Pi and NAD+ to 1,3-bisphosphoglycerate via glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate dehydrogenase. 1,3-bisphosphoglycerate is then dephosphorylated via phosphoglycerate kinase, producing 3-phosphoglycerate and ATP through a substrate-level phosphorylation.

The second substrate-level phosphorylation occurs by dephosphorylating phosphoenolpyruvate (phosphoenolpyruvic acid), catalyzed by pyruvate kinase, producing pyruvate and ATP.

During the preparatory phase, each 6-carbon glucose molecule is broken into two 3-carbon molecules. Thus, in glycolysis dephosphorylation results in the production of 4 ATP. However, the prior preparatory phase consumes 2 ATP, so the net yield in glycolysis is 2 ATP. 2 molecules of NADH are also produced and can be used in oxidative phosphorylation to generate more ATP.

Krebs cycle

Main article: Krebs cycle

ATP can be generated by substrate-level phosphorylation in mitochondria in a pathway that is independent from the proton motive force. In the matrix there are two reactions capable of substrate-level phosphorylation, utilizing either phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase or succinate-CoA ligase.

Phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase

Mitochondrial phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase is thought to participate in the transfer of the phosphorylation potential from the matrix to the cytosol and vice versa.[1][2][3][4][5]

Succinate-CoA ligase

Succinate-CoA ligase is a heterodimer composed of an invariant α-subunit and a substrate-specific ß-subunit, encoded by either SUCLA2 or SUCLG2. This combination results in either an ADP-forming succinate-CoA ligase (A-SUCL, EC or a GDP-forming succinate-CoA ligase (G-SUCL, EC The ADP-forming succinate-CoA ligase is potentially the only matrix enzyme generating ATP in the absence of a proton motive force, capable of maintaining matrix ATP levels under energy-limited conditions, such as transient hypoxia.

Other mechanisms

Another form of substrate-level phosphorylation is also seen in working skeletal muscles and the brain. Phosphocreatine is stored as a readily available high-energy phosphate supply, and the enzyme creatine phosphokinase transfers a phosphate from phosphocreatine to ADP to produce ATP. Then the ATP releases giving chemical energy.

Substrate-level phosphorylation can also be observed in fermentation.

Oxidative phosphorylation

An alternative method used to create ATP is through oxidative phosphorylation, which takes place during cellular respiration. This process utilizes the oxidation of NADH to NAD+, yielding 3 ATP, and of FADH2 to FAD, yielding 2 ATP. An electrochemical or chemiosmotic gradient of protons (H+) across the inner mitochondrial membrane is required to generate ATP from ADP and Pi (inorganic phosphate molecule), a key difference from substrate-level phosphorylation. This gradient is maintained by ATP synthase acting as a pore, allowing H+ from the inner mitochondrial membrane to move passively into the matrix as oxidative phosphorylation actively pumps H+ out of the matrix.


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