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If no oxygen is present, what process happens during cellular respiration?
Fermentation is a metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases or alcohol. It occurs in yeast and bacteria, but also in oxygen-starved muscle cells, as in the case of lactic acid fermentation. Fermentation is also used more broadly to refer to the bulk growth of microorganisms on a growth medium, often with the goal of producing a specific chemical product. French microbiologist Louis Pasteur is often remembered for his insights into fermentation and its microbial causes. The science of fermentation is known as zymology.
Fermentation takes place in the lack of oxygen (when the electron transport chain is unusable) and becomes the cell’s primary means of ATP (energy) production. It turns NADH and pyruvate produced in the glycolysis step into NAD+ and various small molecules depending on the type of fermentation (see examples below). In the presence of O2, NADH and pyruvate are used to generate ATP in respiration. This is called oxidative phosphorylation, and it generates much more ATP than glycolysis alone. For that reason, cells generally benefit from avoiding fermentation when oxygen is available. Exceptions include obligate anaerobes, which cannot tolerate oxygen.
The first step, glycolysis, is common to all fermentation pathways:
C6H12O6 + 2 NAD+ + 2 ADP + 2 Pi → 2 CH3COCOO− + 2 NADH + 2 ATP + 2 H2O + 2H+
Pyruvate is CH3COCOO−. Pi is phosphate. Two ADP molecules and two Pi are converted to two ATP and two water molecules via substrate-level phosphorylation. Two molecules of NAD+ are also reduced to NADH.