Sugar (chemical reactions) metabolism (a simple carbohydrate) is a classic example of the many cellular processes that use and produce energy. Living things consume sugar as a major energy source, because sugar molecules have considerable energy stored within their bonds. The following equation describes the breakdown of glucose, a simple sugar:
Consumed carbohydrates have their origins in photosynthesizing organisms like plants (Figure). During photosynthesis, plants use the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide gas (CO2) into sugar molecules, like glucose (C6H12O6). Because this process involves synthesizing a larger, energy-storing molecule, it requires an energy input to proceed. The following equation (notice that it is the reverse of the previous equation) describes the synthesis of glucose:
During photosynthesis chemical reactions, energy is in the form of a very high-energy molecule scientists call ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. This is the primary energy currency of all cells. Just as the dollar is the currency we use to buy goods, cells use ATP molecules as energy currency to perform immediate work. The sugar (glucose) is stored as starch or glycogen. Energy-storing polymers like these break down into glucose to supply ATP molecules.
Solar energy is required to synthesize a glucose molecule during the photosynthesis reactions. In photosynthesis, light energy from the sun initially transforms into chemical energy that temporally stores itself in the energy carrier molecules ATP and NADPH (nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate). Photosynthesis later uses the stored energy in ATP and NADPH to build one glucose molecule from six molecules of CO2. This process is analogous to eating breakfast in the morning to acquire energy for your body that you can use later in the day. Under ideal conditions, energy from 18 molecules of ATP is required to synthesize one glucose molecule during photosynthesis reactions. Glucose molecules can also combine with and convert into other sugar types. When an organism consumes sugars, glucose molecules eventually make their way into each organism's living cell. Inside the cell, each sugar molecule breaks down through a complex series of chemical reactions. The goal of these reactions is to harvest the energy stored inside the sugar molecules. The harvested energy makes high-energy ATP molecules, which perform work, powering many chemical reactions in the cell. The amount of energy needed to make one glucose molecule from six carbon dioxide molecules is 18 ATP molecules and 12 NADPH molecules (each one of which is energetically equivalent to three ATP molecules), or a total of 54 molecule equivalents required for synthesizing one glucose molecule. This process is a fundamental and efficient way for cells to generate the molecular energy that they require.