Futile cycles: Emerging utility from apparent futility

Cell Metab. 2024 Mar 27:S1550-4131(24)00087-1. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2024.03.008. Online ahead of print.


Futile cycles are biological phenomena where two opposing biochemical reactions run simultaneously, resulting in a net energy loss without appreciable productivity. Such a state was presumed to be a biological aberration and thus deemed an energy-wasting "futile" cycle. However, multiple pieces of evidence suggest that biological utilities emerge from futile cycles. A few established functions of futile cycles are to control metabolic sensitivity, modulate energy homeostasis, and drive adaptive thermogenesis. Yet, the physiological regulation, implication, and pathological relevance of most futile cycles remain poorly studied. In this review, we highlight the abundance and versatility of futile cycles and propose a classification scheme. We further discuss the energetic implications of various futile cycles and their impact on basal metabolic rate, their bona fide and tentative pathophysiological implications, and putative drug interactions.

Keywords: BMR; energy expenditure; futile calcium cycling; futile creatine cycle; futile cycle; futile lipid cycle; obesity; uncoupler.

Publication types

  • Review