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Big Picture: The biochemistry behind Bolt’s briskness

3 Aug, 2012
Usain Bolt. Credit: José Goulão on Flickr

Usain Bolt. Credit: José Goulão on Flickr

On Sunday night, billions of people around the world will be watching Usain Bolt attempt to defend his title as the world’s fastest man. ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – the molecule that will be keeping Bolt flying down the track – is crucial for energy transfer in all living cells.

ATP is created in our cells through a series of enzyme-controlled reactions. In the presence of oxygen, many eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus), undergo aerobic respiration. In this process, oxygen is used to break down glucose, amino acids and fatty acids to generate ATP.

Cellular respiration in all its glory

Without oxygen, or in cells without nuclei (prokaryotes), anaerobic respiration generates ATP, but at a lower yield.

We recently published an issue of our post-16 biology educational resource on this topic: Big Picture: Exercise, Energy and Movement. Alongside the magazine, we created a poster outlining the pathways by which our bodies create ATP (see right – download the PDF or order a printed copy here).

Of course, the faster you go, the more ATP per second you need. In his book The Energy of Life, Guy Brown says that while marathon runners need around 10g/s of ATP, sprinters need five times that amount. Given that muscles’ total ATP content is around 50g, Bolt and his competitors will be using up all the ATP in their bodies in a single second.

Phew, it’s enough to make you tired just thinking about it!

Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Credit:

So while you’re watching Bolt zip down the track on Sunday, just remember, the combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus that is keeping you reclining on the sofa is the same molecule that could lead to him winning yet another Olympic gold.

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