Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is known as the universal energy source of the cell and plays a central role in almost all cellular processes. If you've ever wondered how your body uses the energy from the food you eat or how your muscles are able to move during exercise, ATP is the answer. We'll show you everything you need to know about adenosine triphosphate in this article. As always, scientific, understandable and entertaining.

What is ATP?

Adenosine triphosphate consists of adenine, ribose (a sugar) and three phosphate groups. The energy comes from the cleavage of a phosphate bond - a process known as hydrolysis. This reaction releases energy that can then be used by the cell.

What do we need the ATP for?

Every cell in your body needs adenosine triphosphate to function. ATP provides the energy for many processes, including muscle contraction, nerve impulse transmission, protein biosynthesis and cell division. In short, without ATP our bodies could not exist.

Where can we find ATP?

ATP is found in every living cell, especially in the mitochondriawhich are often referred to as the "powerhouses" of cells. The mitochondria are responsible for oxidative phosphorylation, a process in which most of the adenosine triphosphate is produced in our cells.

How does our body produce energy?

To answer this question, we will try to explain the complex biochemistry as simply as possible using visual analogies:

Imagine your body is a city and ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the energy or money needed to make everything in the city work - from the lights to the water supply. But how does this city get its "money"? Here's the simple process of how our bodies make adenosine triphosphate:

1. food intake - beginning of the process

First you eat something. Your body takes this food and breaks it down into smaller parts, mainly glucose (a type of sugar), which is like the raw materials or crude oil for our city.

2. glycolysis - the first conversion

The glucose is fed into a process called glycolysis, which takes place in the cells but outside the mitochondria. Think of a factory in the city that converts crude oil into a more useful form. This step produces a bit of ATP and something called pyruvate. It's like getting a few coins for the crude oil, but there's a lot more potential to unlock.

3. citric acid cycle - the second transformation

The pyruvate goes into the mitochondria, which are like power stations in the city. Here it is fed into the citric acid cycle (also called the Krebs cycle) where it is broken down further. This process creates a few more ATP molecules and something very important: electron carriers, which are like charged batteries. These electron carriers are mainly NAD.

Did you know?

The NAD metabolism is one of the most exciting fields of research in ageing research. Renowned researchers, such as Harvard Professor David Sinclair, are working on precursors of the "batteries", the NAD. NAD levels decrease with age and by substituting precursors, it has been possible to extend the life of animals, particularly in animal experiments. Read more about this in our NADarticle.

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4. respiratory chain - the great energy production

These "charged batteries" go to the respiratory chain, a process that also takes place in the mitochondria. This is where most of the ATP is produced. You can think of it like a giant hydroelectric power plant, where water (in this case electrons from the "batteries") flows through turbines (enzymes in the mitochondria) and produces a lot of energy (ATP).

During this process, the mitochondria use oxygen that we breathe in to combine the electrons and protons into water. It's a bit like the city using clean energy to maximize its "money".

End of the process

In the end, your body has gained a lot of ATP (energy) from the food you've eaten, which can now be used to keep everything going - from moving your muscles while running to thinking about a tricky puzzle.

And so, quite simply, your body makes ATP, the energy 'money' needed for you to live, breathe, walk, think and do so much more!

ATP and sport

During physical exertion, muscles require a rapid supply of energy to contract and enable movement. ATP is the immediate energy source that powers these muscle movements. As supplies in the muscles are limited, ATP must be continuously regenerated during exercise in order to perform. Here we show you exactly how this works:

Where does the energy come from?

  1. Before you start: Your muscles already have some ATP stored, but not enough for long activities. It's like a flashlight that can only shine for a few minutes.
  2. During exercise: Your body starts to produce more ATP to keep your muscles working. It does this in three main ways:
    • Direct phosphorylation: Your muscles have a different type of battery called creatine phosphate. It can quickly replenish ATP, but it also runs out quickly. This is for short, fast efforts like a sprint.
    • Break down glucose: When the fast method is exhausted, your body starts to break down sugar (glucose) to make more ATP. This works well for activities that take a bit longer, but it also creates waste products that can make you tired.
    • Aerobic respiration: For long-duration activities, such as running or cycling, your body starts to produce even more ATP with the help of oxygen. This method provides the most energy and can be sustained for a long time as long as you get enough oxygen.

Did you know?

You can improve your creatine phosphate stores. These "quick-discharge" batteries are particularly important for weight training or sprinting. By supplementing creatine, you increase the creatine phosphate content in your muscles. Together with calcium alpha-ketoglutarate and magnesium, you can expect an increase in performance. But that's not all. Creatine also plays a role in ageing research, as it can have a positive effect on cognitive performance. Find out more in our creatine article.

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What happens to the ATP?

  • When ATP is used: The energy that ATP provides is released by removing one of its phosphate groups. This leaves behind a molecule called ADP (adenosine diphosphate). It is as if the battery is discharged.
  • Recharge: Your body takes this "discharged" ADP and adds back a phosphate group to turn it back into ATP so it can provide energy again. It's like recharging the battery.

During sport:

The more intense the sport, the faster ATP is broken down and needs to be rebuilt. If you do strenuous exercise and your muscles use a lot of ATP very quickly, your body may have difficulty supplying enough oxygen to rebuild ATP fast enough. Then you feel tired and have to slow down or take a break.

To summarize: ATP is like a rechargeable battery that supplies your muscles with energy. During exercise, your body breaks down ATP to work and rebuilds it to keep going. The way your body replenishes ATP depends on how long and how intensely you exercise.

ATP and longevity

Interestingly, there is research suggesting that efficient ATP metabolism may be linked to longevity. Studies have shown that the ability of mitochondria to efficiently produce ATP is often better preserved in long-lived species. This suggests that optimal energy production and utilization may play a role in longevity.