Aerobic/Anaerobic Systems

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Aerobic/anaerobic systems

Most living organisms require oxygen to function normally, but a few forms of life exist exclusively in the absence of oxygen and some can function both in the presence of oxygen (aerobically) and in its absence (anaerobically). Examples of anaerobic organisms are found in bacteria of the genus Clostridium,in parasitic protozoans from the gastrointestinal tract of humans and other vertebrates, and in ciliates associated with sulfide-containing sediments. Organisms capable of switching between aerobic and anaerobic existence are found in forms of fungi known as yeasts. The ability of an organism to function both aerobically and anaerobically increases the variety of sites in which it is able to exist and conveys some advantages over organisms with less adaptive potential.

Microbial decay activity in nature can occur either aerobically or anaerobically. Aerobic decomposers of compost and other organic substrates are generally preferable because they act more quickly and release fewer noxious odors. Large sewage treatment plants use a two-stage digestion system in which the first stage is anaerobic digestion of sludge that produces flammable methane gas that may be used as fuel to help operate the plant. Sludge digestion continues in the aerobic second stage, a process which is easier to control but more costly because of the power needed to provide aeration . Although most fungi are generally aerobic organisms, yeasts used in bread making and in the production of fermented beverages such as wine and beer can metabolize anaerobically. In the process, they release ethyl alcohol and the carbon dioxide that causes bread to rise.

Tissues of higher organisms may have limited capability for anaerobic metabolism , but they need elaborate compensating mechanisms to survive even brief periods without oxygen. For example, human muscle tissue is able to metabolize anaerobically when blood cannot supply the large amounts of oxygen needed for vigorous activity. Muscle contraction requires an energy-rich compound called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Muscle tissue normally contains enough ATP for 2030 seconds of intense activity. ATP must then be metabolically regenerated from glycogen, the muscle's primary energy source. Muscle tissue has both aerobic and anaerobic metabolic systems for regenerating ATP from glycogen. Although the aerobic system is much more efficient, the anaerobic system is the major energy source for the first minute or two of exercise. The carbon dioxide released in this process causes the heart rate to increase. As the heart beats faster and more oxygen is delivered to the muscle tissue, the more efficient aerobic system for generating ATP takes over. A person's physical condition is important in determining how well the aerobic system is able to meet the needs of continued activity. In fit individuals who exercise regularly, heart function is optimized, and the heart is able to pump blood rapidly enough to maintain aerobic metabolism. If the oxygen level in muscle tissue drops, anaerobic metabolism will resume. Toxic products of anaerobic metabolism, including lactic acid , accumulate in the tissue, and muscle fatigue results.

Other interesting examples of limited anaerobic capability are found in the animal kingdom. Some diving ducks have an adaptation that allows them to draw oxygen from stored oxyhemoglobin and oxymyoglobin in blood and muscles. This adaptation permits them to remain submerged in water for extended periods. To prevent desiccation, mussels and clams close their shells when out of the water at low tide, and their metabolism shifts from aerobic to anaerobic. When once again in the water, the animals rapidly return to aerobic metabolism and purge themselves of the acid products of anaerobiosis accumulated while they were dry.

[Douglas C. Pratt ]



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McArdle, W. D. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance. 4th ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996.

Stanbury, P. F., Whitaker, A., and Hall, S. J. Principles of Fermentation Technology. 2nd ed. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Pergamon, 1995.


Klass, D. L. "Methane from Anaerobic Fermentation." Science 223 (1984): 1021.

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Aerobic/Anaerobic Systems

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