What is Pyruvate? - Definition & Overview

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  • 0:00 Introduction to Pyruvate
  • 0:45 What Is Pyruvate?
  • 2:15 Pyruvate - the Building Block
  • 3:50 Pyruvate - Cellular…
  • 7:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nicola McDougal

Nicky has taught a variety of chemistry courses at college level. Nicky has a PhD in Physical Chemistry.

Pyruvate is a very important biological molecule. It's involved in a number of biological processes and is essential in cellular respiration. In this lesson, we'll learn what pyruvate is and why it's important to all living cells.

Introduction to Pyruvate

Here we are at the Golden Globe Awards for biological molecules. Ooh, they're announcing an award. This is so exciting! And this year's award for the most versatile biological molecule in the cell goes to pyruvate.

If the winner is a surprise to you, you're likely not alone. Pyruvate is often forgotten among the many other important biological molecules in the cell. But it shouldn't be! Pyruvate is an essential intermediate in many biochemical pathways, two of which we'll take a look at later in this lesson. So, if you only know a few molecules in the living cell, be sure pyruvate is one of them!

What Is Pyruvate?

Let's take a closer look at the star of our show. Sometimes called pyruvic acid, pyruvate is an organic molecule and consists of a 3-carbon backbone. Notice that organic chemists don't always include all the Cs for the carbon atoms; the gap on the line is an implied carbon! Having three carbon atoms is actually quite important, and you'll see why a little later.

pyruvate molecule

If you want to remember how many carbon atoms are in pyruvate, you can learn this rhyme: Mary eats prunes, bananas, and pears. And from one to five carbons, the organic stem names are methane, ethane, propane, butane, and pentane. Now, you can see that pyruvate has a p and an r, which matches up to the three carbons from the propane stem!

Pyruvate also consists of two functional groups. A functional group is simply a group of atoms responsible for the characteristic properties and reactions of the molecule. First, we have a ketone, and at the top is a carboxylate group. The presence of these two groups means pyruvate is a keto acid. Keto acids are common in biochemistry because they're chemically quite reactive. So, now that we know what pyruvate is, let's take a look at some important processes it's involved in.

Pyruvate - the Building Block

At the beginning of this lesson, we saw that pyruvate won the Golden Globe for the most versatile biological molecule. In fact, pyruvate is needed in no fewer than six metabolic pathways! It's involved in both synthesis and breakdown pathways, making it a very busy molecule.

First, let's take a look at pyruvate's role in synthesis. The body can build glucose from pyruvate through a process called gluconeogenesis, which simply means production of new glucose.


You can see that glucose has six carbon atoms, and you'll remember that earlier we said pyruvate has three carbon atoms, and this is important. That's because two pyruvate molecules joined together provide the backbone for glucose! 3 + 3 = 6. If your body is running short on glucose, pyruvate can be used to make more. How awesome is that!

Pyruvate is also used directly in the synthesis of alanine, one of the 20 essential amino acids, and indirectly in other amino acid synthesis. Amino acids are essential because they make proteins. Pyruvate is also involved in the synthesis of lipids and fatty acids through the production of a molecule called acetyl-coenzyme A, or acetyl-CoA. We'll return to this molecule in the next section.

Pyruvate - Cellular Respiration

Pyruvate also is critical in cellular respiration. Pyruvate molecules are formed during a series of important reactions called glycolysis. Glycolysis is the pathway of breaking down glucose molecules and the first step of cellular respiration. Glycolysis is the complete opposite of gluoconeogenesis because a 6-carbon molecule is being broken down into two 3-carbon compounds.

Glycolysis is extremely important for mammals because it's the start of our energy cycle. When we eat carbohydrates, like cookies, potatoes, and bread, our bodies absorb glucose in the bloodstream. Once glucose is broken down, pyruvate molecules are formed. These molecules then go on to produce further energy for the cells. They can do this in one of two ways; which way depends on how much oxygen is present.

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