Scientists Say: Metabolism | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Metabolism

This word refers to all the chemical activities that support life in a cell, an organ — and you
Jan 28, 2019 — 6:30 am EST
single cell autophagy

Cells are always undergoing metabolism — taking food and turning it in to energy, building up new cell parts and breaking them down again.


Metabolism (noun, “Meh-TAH-boh-lism”)

This word describes the chemical activities that support life inside cells and organs. This includes converting food into energy — what we might think of as burning calories. But it also includes building important molecules like proteins and DNA and getting rid of waste products.

Metabolism isn’t just for warm-blooded animals like us. Everything living organism has one. Metabolism is what allows living things to grow, reproduce, move and more. 

Often people mention metabolism when talking about bodyweight. They might say losing weight is hard because they have a “slow metabolism.” Or that they never gain weight because they have a “fast metabolism.” Whether or not that’s true, they are referring to only one specific part of metabolism — how fast the body processes calories from food. This influences how much we grow, yes. But there’s more to metabolism than that.


In a sentence

A person’s metabolism goes up and down throughout the day, burning different energy sources at different times.

Check out the full list of Scientists Say here

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

calorie     The amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water by 1 degree Celsius. It is typically used as a measurement of the energy contained in some defined amount of food.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the unaided eye, it consists of a watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Depending on their size, animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells. Most organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

chemical reaction     A process that involves the rearrangement of the molecules or structure of a substance, as opposed to a change in physical form (as from a solid to a gas).

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

enzymes     Molecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.

metabolism     (adj. metabolic)  The set of life-sustaining chemical reactions that take place inside cells and bigger structures, such as organs. These reactions enable organisms to grow, reproduce, move and otherwise respond to their environments.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

organ     (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that makes sense of nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

protein     A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

warm-blooded     Adjective for animals (chiefly mammals and birds) that maintain a constant body temperature, typically above that of their surroundings. Scientists generally prefer the term endothermic to describe animals that generate heat to control their body’s temperature.

waste     Any materials that are left over from biological or other systems that have no value, so they can be disposed of as trash or recycled for some new use.