Background: Cancer cells, and a variety of normal cells, exhibit aerobic glycolysis, high rates of glucose fermentation in the presence of normal oxygen concentrations, also known as the Warburg effect. This metabolism is considered abnormal because it violates the standard model of cellular energy production that assumes glucose metabolism is predominantly governed by oxygen concentrations and, therefore, fermentative glycolysis is an emergency back-up for periods of hypoxia. Though several hypotheses have been proposed for the origin of aerobic glycolysis, its biological basis in cancer and normal cells is still not well understood.
Results: We examined changes in glucose metabolism following perturbations in membrane activity in different normal and tumor cell lines and found that inhibition or activation of pumps on the cell membrane led to reduction or increase in glycolysis, respectively, while oxidative phosphorylation remained unchanged. Computational simulations demonstrated that these findings are consistent with a new model of normal physiological cellular metabolism in which efficient mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation supplies chronic energy demand primarily for macromolecule synthesis and glycolysis is necessary to supply rapid energy demands primarily to support membrane pumps. A specific model prediction was that the spatial distribution of ATP-producing enzymes in the glycolytic pathway must be primarily localized adjacent to the cell membrane, while mitochondria should be predominantly peri-nuclear. The predictions were confirmed experimentally.
Conclusions: Our results show that glycolytic metabolism serves a critical physiological function under normoxic conditions by responding to rapid energetic demand, mainly from membrane transport activities, even in the presence of oxygen. This supports a new model for glucose metabolism in which glycolysis and oxidative phosphorylation supply different types of energy demand. Cells use efficient but slow-responding aerobic metabolism to meet baseline, steady energy demand and glycolytic metabolism, which is inefficient but can rapidly increase adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, to meet short-timescale energy demands, mainly from membrane transport activities. In this model, the origin of the Warburg effect in cancer cells and aerobic glycolysis in general represents a normal physiological function due to enhanced energy demand for membrane transporters activity required for cell division, growth, and migration.
Keywords: Glucose metabolism; Warburg effect; aerobic glycolysis; membrane activity.