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Fermentation in progress

Fermentation is the process of deriving energy from the oxidation of organic compounds, such as carbohydrates, using an endogenous electron acceptor, which is usually an organic compound.[1] This is in contrast to cellular respiration, where electrons are donated to an exogenous electron acceptor, such as oxygen, via an electron transport chain. Fermentation does not necessarily have to be carried out in an anaerobic environment. For example, even in the presence of abundant oxygen, yeast cells greatly prefer fermentation to oxidative phosphorylation, as long as sugars are readily available for consumption.[2]

Sugars are the most common substrate of fermentation, and typical examples of fermentation products are ethanol, lactic acid, and hydrogen. However, more exotic compounds can be produced by fermentation, such as butyric acid and acetone. Yeast carries out fermentation in the production of ethanol in beers, wines and other alcoholic drinks, along with the production of large quantities of carbon dioxide. Fermentation occurs in mammalian muscle during periods of intense exercise where oxygen supply becomes limited, resulting in the creation of lactic acid.[3]

Energy source in anaerobic conditions

Fermentation products contain chemical energy (they are not fully oxidized) but are considered waste products, since they cannot be metabolized further without the use of oxygen (or other more highly-oxidized electron acceptors). A consequence is that the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by fermentation is less efficient than oxidative phosphorylation, whereby pyruvate is fully oxidized to carbon dioxide.

  • Ethanol fermentation (performed by yeast and some types of bacteria) breaks the pyruvate down into ethanol and carbon dioxide. It is important in bread-making, brewing, and wine-making. Usually only one of the products is desired; in bread-making, the alcohol is baked out, and, in alcohol production, the carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere or used for carbonating the beverage. When the ferment has a high concentration of pectin, minute quantities of methanol can be produced.
  • Lactic acid fermentation breaks down the pyruvate into lactic acid. It occurs in the muscles of animals when they need energy faster than the blood can supply oxygen. It also occurs in some kinds of bacteria (such as lactobacilli) and some fungi. It is this type of bacteria that converts lactose into lactic acid in yogurt, giving it its sour taste. These lactic acid bacteria can be classed as homofermentative, where the end product is mostly lactate, or heterofermentative, where some lactate is further metabolized and results in carbon dioxide, acetate or other metabolic products.
  • Hydrogen gas is produced in many types of fermentation (mixed acid fermentation, butyric acid fermentation, caproate fermentation, butanol fermentation, glyoxylate fermentation), as a way to regenerate NAD+from NADH. Electrons are transferred to ferredoxin, which in turn is oxidized by hydrogenase, producing H2. Hydrogen gas is a substrate for methanogens and sulfate reducers, which keep the concentration of hydrogen sufficiently low to allow the production of such an energy-rich compound.[4]


French chemist Louis Pasteur was the first zymologist, when, in 1857, he connected yeast to fermentation. Pasteur originally defined fermentation as respiration without air.

Pasteur performed careful research and concluded, "I am of the opinion that alcoholic fermentation never occurs without simultaneous organization, development and multiplication of cells.... If asked, in what consists the chemical act whereby the sugar is decomposed ... I am completely ignorant of it."

German chemist and zymologist, Eduard Buchner, winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize in chemistry, later determined that fermentation is actually caused by a yeast secretion that he termed zymase.


The term Fermentation is derived from the Latin verb "fevere" which means "to boil".

See also

  • Dark fermentation
  • Fermentation (wine)
  • Fermentation (food)
  • Fermentative hydrogen production
  • Industrial fermentation
  • Fermentation lock
  • Fed-batch
  • Chemostat
  • Ethanol fermentation
  • Photofermentation


  1. Klein, Donald W.; Prescott, Lansing M.; Harley, John (2005). Microbiology, New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Dickinson, J. R. (1999). Carbon metabolism. In: The Metabolism and Molecular Physiology of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, ed. J. R. Dickinson and M. Schweizer, Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.
  3. Voet and Voet (1995) Biochemistry, 2nd ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, NY
  4. Madigan, Martinko, Brock Biology of Microorganisms.

External links

The chemical logic behind fermentation and respiration

Template:Carbohydrate metabolism

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