Aerobic metabolism underlies complexity and capacity

J Physiol. 2008 Jan 1;586(1):83-95. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2007.144709. Epub 2007 Oct 18.


The evolution of biological complexity beyond single-celled organisms was linked temporally with the development of an oxygen atmosphere. Functionally, this linkage can be attributed to oxygen ranking high in both abundance and electronegativity amongst the stable elements of the universe. That is, reduction of oxygen provides for close to the largest possible transfer of energy for each electron transfer reaction. This suggests the general hypothesis that the steep thermodynamic gradient of an oxygen environment was permissive for the development of multicellular complexity. A corollary of this hypothesis is that aerobic metabolism underwrites complex biological function mechanistically at all levels of organization. The strong contemporary functional association of aerobic metabolism with both physical capacity and health is presumably a product of the integral role of oxygen in our evolutionary history. Here we provide arguments from thermodynamics, evolution, metabolic network analysis, clinical observations and animal models that are in accord with the centrality of oxygen in biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Humans
  • Models, Animal
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Thermodynamics


  • Oxygen