Ethanol metabolism

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Ethanol, an alcohol found in nature and in alcoholic drinks, is metabolized through a complex catabolic metabolic pathway.

Human metabolic physiology[edit]

Ethanol and evolution[edit]

Research suggest that animals evolved the ability to metabolize the alcohol present in fermented fruit to adapt to the changing climate 10 million years ago. Thanks to enzymes in their gut, and particularly one called ADH4, they can make use of the calories in alcohol.[1]

The average human digestive system produces approximately 3g of ethanol per day merely through fermentation of its contents.[2] Catabolic degradation of ethanol is thus essential to life, not only of humans, but of almost all living organisms. In fact, certain amino acid sequences in the enzymes used to oxidize ethanol are conserved all the way back to single cell bacteria.[3] Such a functionality is needed because all organisms actually produce alcohol in small amounts by several pathways, primarily along the fatty acid synthesis,[4] glycerolipid metabolism,[5] and bile acid biosynthesis pathways.[6] If the body had no mechanism for catabolizing the alcohols, they would build up in the body and become toxic. This could be an evolutionary rationale for alcohol catabolism also by sulfotransferase.

Physiologic structures[edit]

As is a basic organizing theme in biological systems, greater complexity of a body system, such as tissues and organs allows for greater specificity of function. This occurs for the processing of ethanol in the human body. All the enzymes needed to accomplish the oxidation reactions are confined to certain tissues. In particular, much higher concentration of such enzymes are found in the kidneys and in the liver,[7] making such organs the primary site for alcohol catabolism. Variations in genes influence alcohol metabolism and drinking behavior.[8]

Thermodynamic considerations[edit]

Energy thermodynamics[edit]

Energy calculations[edit]

The reaction from ethanol to carbon dioxide and water is a complex one that proceeds in three steps. Below, the Gibbs free energy of formation for each step is shown with ΔGf values given in the CRC.[9]

Complete reaction: C2H6O(Ethanol)→C2H4O(Acetaldehyde)→C2H4O2(acetic acid) →Acetyl-CoA→3H2O+2CO2.

ΔGf = Σ ΔGfp − ΔGfo

Step One[edit]

C2H6O(Ethanol) + NAD+ →C2H4O(Acetaldehyde) + NADH + H+
Ethanol: −174.8 kJ/mol
Acetaldehyde: −127.6 kJ/mol
ΔGf1 = −127.6 + 174.8 = 47.2 kJ/mol(Endergonic)
ΣΔGf = 47.2 kJ/mol (Endergonic, but this does not take into consideration the simultaneous reduction of NAD+.)

Step Two[edit]

C2H4O(Acetaldehyde) + NAD+ + H2O → C2H4O2(acetic acid) + NADH + H+
Acetaldehyde: −127.6 kJ/mol
Acetic Acid: −389.9 kJ/mol
ΔGf2 = −389.9 + 127.6 = −262.3 kJ/mol (Exergonic)
ΣΔGf = = −262.3 + 47.2 = −215.1 kJ/mol (Exergonic, but again this does not take into consideration the reduction of NAD+.)

Step Three[edit]

C2H4O2(acetic acid) + CoA + ATP → Acetyl-CoA + AMP + PPi

(Because the Gibbs energy is a state function, we skip the formation of Acetyl-CoA (step 3), for lack of thermodynamic values.)

For the oxidation of acetic acid we have:
Acetic Acid: −389.9 kJ/mol
3H2O+2CO2: −1 500.1 kJ/mol
ΔGf4 = −1 500 + 389.6 = −1 110.5 kJ/mol (Exergonic)
ΣΔGf = = −1 110.5 - 215.1 = −1 325.6 kJ/mol (Exergonic)

Discussion of calculations[edit]

If catabolism of alcohol goes all the way to completion, then, we have a very exothermic event yielding some 1 325 kJ/mol of energy. If the reaction stops part way through the metabolic pathways, which happens because acetic acid is excreted in the urine after drinking, then not nearly as much energy can be derived from alcohol, indeed, only 215.1 kJ/mol. At the very least, the theoretical limits on energy yield are determined to be -215.1 kJ/mol to -1 325.6 kJ/mol. It is also important to note that step 1 on this reaction is endothermic, requiring 47.2 kJ/mol of alcohol, or about 3 molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) per molecule of ethanol.

Organic reaction scheme[edit]

Steps of the reaction[edit]

The first three steps of the reaction pathways lead from ethanol to acetaldehyde to acetic acid to acetyl-CoA. Once acetyl-CoA is formed, it is free to enter directly into the citric acid cycle.

Gene expression and ethanol metabolism[edit]

Ethanol to acetaldehyde in human adults[edit]

In human adults, ethanol is oxidized to acetaldehyde using NAD+, mainly via the hepatic enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase IB (class I), beta polypeptide (ADH1B, EC The gene coding for this enzyme is located on chromosome 4, locus 4q21-q23. The enzyme encoded by this gene is a member of the alcohol dehydrogenase family. Members of this enzyme family metabolize a wide variety of substrates, including ethanol, retinol, other aliphatic alcohols, hydroxysteroids, and lipid peroxidation products. This encoded protein, consisting of several homo- and heterodimers of alpha, beta, and gamma subunits, exhibits high activity for ethanol oxidation and plays a major role in ethanol catabolism. Three genes encoding alpha, beta and gamma subunits are tandemly organized in a genomic segment as a gene cluster.[10]

Ethanol to acetaldehyde in human fetuses[edit]

In human embryos and fetuses, ethanol is not metabolized via this mechanism as ADH enzymes are not yet expressed to any significant quantity in human fetal liver (the induction of ADH only starts after birth, and requires years to reach adult levels).[11] Accordingly, the fetal liver cannot metabolize ethanol or other low molecular weight xenobiotiocs. In fetuses, ethanol is instead metabolized at much slower rates by different enzymes from the cytochrome P-450 superfamily (CYP), in particular by CYP2E1. The low fetal rate of ethanol clearance is responsible for the important observation that the fetal compartment retains high levels of ethanol long after ethanol has been cleared from the maternal circulation by the adult ADH activity in the maternal liver.[12] CYP2E1 expression and activity have been detected in various human fetal tissues after the onset of organogenesis (ca 50 days of gestation).[13] Exposure to ethanol is known to promote further induction of this enzyme in fetal and adult tissues. CYP2E1 is a major contributor to the so-called Microsomal Ethanol Oxidizing System (MEOS)[14] and its activity in fetal tissues is thought to contribute significantly to the toxicity of maternal ethanol consumption.[15][16] In presence of ethanol and oxygen, CYP2E1 is known to release superoxide radicals and induce the oxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids to toxic aldehyde products like 4-hydroxynonenal (HNE).

Acetaldehyde to acetic acid[edit]

Acetaldehyde is a highly unstable compound and quickly forms free radical structures which are highly toxic if not quenched by antioxidants such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and Vitamin B1 (thiamine). These free radicals can result in damage to embryonic neural crest cells and can lead to severe birth defects. Prolonged exposure of the kidney and liver to these compounds in chronic alcoholics can lead to severe damage.[17] The literature also suggests that these toxins may have a hand in causing some of the ill effects associated with hang-overs.

The enzyme associated with the chemical transformation from acetaldehyde to acetic acid is aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 family (ALDH2, EC The gene coding for this enzyme is found on chromosome 12, locus q24.2.[18]

"This protein belongs to the aldehyde dehydrogenase family of proteins. Aldehyde dehydrogenase is the second enzyme of the major oxidative pathway of alcohol metabolism. Two major liver isoforms of aldehyde dehydrogenase, cytosolic and mitochondrial, can be distinguished by their electrophoretic mobilities, kinetic properties, and subcellular localizations. Most Caucasians have two major isozymes, while approximately 50% of East Asians have the cytosolic isozyme but not the mitochondrial isozyme. A remarkably higher frequency of acute alcohol intoxication among East Asians than among Caucasians could be related to the absence of a catalytically active form of the mitochondrial isozyme. The increased exposure to acetaldehyde in individuals with the catalytically inactive form may also confer greater susceptibility to many types of cancer. This gene encodes a mitochondrial isoform, which has a low Km for acetaldehydes, and is localized in mitochondrial matrix. Alternative splicing results in multiple transcript variants encoding distinct isoforms." [19]

Acetic acid to acetyl-CoA[edit]

Two enzymes are associated with the conversion of acetic acid to acetyl-CoA. The first is acyl-CoA synthetase short-chain family member 2 ACSS2 (EC According to the Gene database of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, "This gene encodes a cytosolic enzyme that catalyzes the activation of acetate for use in lipid synthesis and energy generation. The protein acts as a monomer and produces acetyl-CoA from acetate in a reaction that requires ATP. Expression of this gene is regulated by sterol regulatory element-binding proteins, transcription factors that activate genes required for the synthesis of cholesterol and unsaturated fatty acids."[20] The second enzyme is acetyl-CoA synthase 2 (confusingly also called ACSS1) which is localized in mitochondria.

Acetyl-CoA to water and carbon dioxide[edit]


Once acetyl-CoA is formed, it enters the normal citric acid cycle.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  3. ^ Comparison of Nucleotide Residues Between Humans and Bacteria
  4. ^ Fatty Acid Synthesis
  5. ^ Glycerolipid Metabolism
  6. ^ Bile Acid Biosynthesis
  7. ^ Polymorphism of alcohol-metabolizing genes affects drinking behavior and alcoholic liver disease in Japanese men
  8. ^ "Genetic polymorphisms of alcohol metabolizing enzymes". Pathol Biol (Paris). 49: 703–9. Nov 2001. PMID 11762132. 
  9. ^ CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 81st Edition, 2000
  10. ^ ADH1B at NIH
  11. ^ Ernst van Faassen and Onni Niemelä, Biochemistry of prenatal alcohol exposure, NOVA Science Publishers, New York 2011.
  12. ^ A. Nava-Ocampo et al, Reprod Toxicol 18 (2004) 613 - 617.
  13. ^ M. Brzezinski et al, J. Pharmacol Exp Therap 289 (1999) 1648 - 1653.
  14. ^ Charles Lieber, Drug Metab Rev 36 (2004) 511 - 529
  15. ^ Ernst van Faassen and Onni Niemelä, Biochemistry of prenatal alcohol exposure, NOVA Science Publishers, New York 2011.
  16. ^ Pregnancy and Alcohol Consumption, ed. J.D. Hoffmann, NOVA Science Publishers, New York 2011.
  17. ^
  18. ^ NCBI sequence: locus NC_000012;43439 bp;DNA
  19. ^ ALDH2 NIH
  20. ^ ACSS2 NIH

Further reading[edit]