What Are The Molecules That Store Energy?

Energy storage molecules are essential compounds that allow organisms to stockpile chemical energy obtained from food for later use. These molecules act as rechargeable batteries, storing energy when there is an excess and providing it when needed. Without efficient energy storage, organisms would be unable to function properly. Key energy storage molecules include adenosine triphosphate (ATP), glycogen, fatty acids, and triglycerides. Understanding these vital compounds provides insight into how living things operate on a molecular level.


ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is one of the main molecules that store energy in cells. It consists of an adenine nucleobase, a ribose sugar, and three phosphate groups bonded together. The bonds between the phosphate groups contain high-energy bonds, which can be broken down to release energy for cellular processes.

The structure of ATP contains the nitrogenous base adenine, the 5-carbon sugar ribose, and a chain of three phosphate groups. The three phosphates are bonded together by two high-energy phosphoanhydride bonds, which store a large amount of potential energy. These bond are referred to as high-energy because the products after breakage, ADP and inorganic phosphate, have considerably lower free energy than the reactants.

energy molecules like atp provide the fuel cells need to function.

When ATP is broken down into ADP and phosphate by hydrolysis, the high-energy bonds are broken, resulting in the release of free energy that can perform cellular work. This makes ATP an excellent molecule for supplying readily-available energy around the cell. The breakdown of ATP into ADP is a coupled reaction, meaning that the free energy released is used directly to power endergonic reactions and processes.

Functions of ATP

ATP is often referred to as the “molecular unit of currency” in intracellular energy transfer. It transfers energy within cells to power biological processes and reactions. The most notable function of ATP is that it couples energy-releasing reactions with energy-requiring reactions. More specifically, the breakdown of ATP provides the energy needed for metabolic reactions, active transport of molecules across cell membranes, muscle contraction, biosynthesis, and mechanical work.

The energy from ATP is released when its phosphate bonds are hydrolyzed or broken by the removal of a phosphate group. This releases energy that is then used to fuel endergonic reactions and biological work. The energy is stored in the phosphate bonds when ATP is synthesized from ADP and inorganic phosphate through exergic reactions like cellular respiration. Overall, the cycling of ATP, where it is synthesized and broken down continuously, allows for the efficient transfer of energy in cells.


Glycogen is a multibranched polysaccharide of glucose that serves as a form of energy storage in humans, animals, fungi, and bacteria. It is the main storage form of glucose in the body.

Glycogen has a structure similar to amylopectin (a component of starch), but more highly branched and compact. It consists of chains of glucose units linked by alpha-1,4 glycosidic bonds with branches linked by alpha-1,6 glycosidic bonds. The branching allows glycogen to have more reducing ends per molecule, thereby allowing more molecules of UDP-glucose to attach for storage. The large number of reducing ends also allows glycogen to be rapidly broken down when energy is needed.

Glycogen is found in the form of granules in the cytosol in many cell types, and plays an important role as an energy reserve. The highest concentrations are found in the liver and skeletal muscle. When the body needs quick energy, glycogen stored in the liver and muscles can be broken down rapidly to release glucose into the bloodstream.

Overall, glycogen serves as a vital way for the body to store excess glucose and rapidly mobilize it when glucose levels fall. The branched structure allows compact storage and efficient release when energy is required.

Fatty Acids

Fatty acids are another important molecule that stores energy in the body. They consist of long chains of hydrocarbons with a carboxyl group at one end. The number of carbons in the hydrocarbon chain typically ranges from 4 to 28. Fatty acids may be saturated, with only single bonds between the carbons, or unsaturated, with one or more double bonds between the carbons.

Some of the most common fatty acids include:

  • Stearic acid – an 18-carbon saturated fatty acid
  • Oleic acid – an 18-carbon unsaturated fatty acid with one double bond
  • Linoleic acid – an 18-carbon unsaturated fatty acid with two double bonds
  • Palmitic acid – a 16-carbon saturated fatty acid

The hydrocarbon chains of fatty acids make them hydrophobic, allowing them to be stored in adipose tissue and providing more energy per gram than carbohydrates. The carboxyl group makes them polar and gives them their acidic properties.


Triglycerides, also known as triacylglycerols, are energy-dense molecules that play a key role in the storage of excess energy in the body. Triglycerides consist of three fatty acids attached to a glycerol backbone. Fatty acids contain long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms and provide most of the energy stored in triglycerides.

Triglycerides are used by the body to store excess energy from the diet for later use. After consuming a meal, any carbohydrates, proteins, or fats that are not immediately used for energy production or biosynthesis are converted into triglycerides. Triglycerides provide more than twice as much energy per gram as carbohydrates and proteins. This makes them an ideal form for compact energy storage.

In the fed state after a meal, triglycerides are synthesized in the liver and intestinal cells and packaged into lipoproteins that transport them through the blood to adipose tissue. In adipose tissue, specialized cells called adipocytes absorb the triglycerides and store them in lipid droplets. These lipid droplets of triglycerides serve as the main depot of surplus energy in the body. When energy is needed between meals, hormones signal adipose tissue to break down triglycerides through lipolysis, releasing fatty acids into the blood that can be taken up by tissues and used for ATP production.

In summary, triglycerides play a vital role as energy storage molecules, allowing excess calories to be efficiently stored in adipose tissue and mobilized when needed. The high energy density and hydrophobicity of triglycerides makes them ideal for compact storage of surplus fuel.


ATP, glycogen, and triglycerides all store energy in the body, but have some key differences.

ATP is considered the primary and immediate energy currency of the cell. It can directly provide energy for cellular processes. Glycogen and triglycerides, on the other hand, must be broken down through metabolic processes to release their energy. They act as more of a long-term energy storage form.

In terms of structure, ATP consists of adenosine bound to three phosphate groups, while glycogen is a branched polymer of glucose units, and triglycerides contain three fatty acids bound to a glycerol backbone. Glycogen and triglycerides store much more energy per unit than ATP.

ATP is found throughout the cell and used for many energy-requiring cellular reactions. Glycogen is stored mainly in the liver and muscles. Triglycerides are stored primarily in adipose tissue. ATP can be regenerated quickly, while glycogen and triglyceride stores take more time to be built back up after being depleted.

In summary, ATP provides readily-available energy for immediate use, while glycogen and triglycerides are stored as longer-term energy reserves with more energy packed into their molecular structures.


There are several disorders related to problems with energy storage in the body:

Glycogen storage diseases – These are a group of disorders caused by enzyme defects that affect the breakdown or synthesis of glycogen. Symptoms can include low blood sugar, enlarged liver, growth delay, and muscle weakness. There are over 12 types of glycogen storage diseases.

Carnitine deficiency – Carnitine is needed to transport fatty acids into mitochondria for beta-oxidation. Primary carnitine deficiency is caused by genetic defects in carnitine transporters. This can lead to low energy, muscle weakness, and heart disorders.

Neutral lipid storage disease – This rare disorder prevents normal breakdown of triglycerides. It leads to accumulation of triglycerides in tissues and organs including the liver, heart, and intestines. Symptoms include liver enlargement, low muscle tone, and developmental delays.

Mitochondrial disorders – Defects in mitochondria can impair ATP production and the use of energy in cells. These disorders often affect high-energy demand organs like the brain, muscles, heart, liver, and kidneys. Symptoms depend on the organs affected.

Recent Research

There is extensive ongoing research into how the body stores and utilizes energy at the molecular level. Some key areas of focus include:

Metabolic disorders: Researchers are studying disorders like diabetes where the body has problems properly regulating energy storage and usage. The goal is to better understand the underlying molecular causes and develop more targeted treatments.

Improving athletic performance: Studies are exploring how supplements and specialized diets may boost the body’s energy stores and efficiency. This could allow athletes to train longer and recover faster between competitions.

Weight loss and obesity: Scientists are investigating the genes and pathways that control fat storage and mobilization. This research could reveal new drug targets or strategies to help promote healthy weight regulation.

Aging: Some studies suggest our energy metabolism declines with age, contributing to frailty and disease. Research in this area aims to counteract this age-related energy deficit and its effects.

While molecules like ATP and glycogen have been studied for decades, new technologies and approaches are still rapidly advancing our understanding of human energy storage and utilization at the molecular level. Exciting discoveries likely lie ahead.


Energy storage molecules like ATP, glycogen, and triglycerides play a crucial role in biology. ATP provides the immediate energy source for cellular processes. Glycogen and triglycerides store excess glucose and fatty acids, respectively, for later use. Proper functioning of these energy storage and transfer systems is essential for life. Dysfunction can lead to disorders like glycogen storage disease and fatty acid oxidation disorders. Ongoing research continues to uncover new insights into these important biological molecules and pathways. Understanding energy storage and utilization at the molecular level provides the foundation for advances in health, medicine, and bioengineering.

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