Citric Acid Cycle Explained

citric acid cycle inside mitochondria

Core Concepts

The citric acid cycle, also known as the tricarboxylic acid cycle or the Krebs Cycle, is a catabolic aerobic process that living organisms use to generate ATP. In this article, you will learn the eight reactions in the Citric Acid Cycle, how those reactions work, and the products and reactants involved. Throughout the article the terms Citric Acid Cycle, tricarboxylic acid cycle (TCA), and the Krebs Cycle will be used interchangeably. 

Topics Covered In Other Articles


  • Aerobic Respiration- a chemical process used to generate energy from carbohydrates in the presence of oxygen.
  • Decarboxylation – removal of a carboxyl group and later release of CO2.
  • Dehydrogenase- transfer of electrons
  • Hydration-addition of a water molecule


  • 3 NADH
  • 2 CO2
  • 1 FADH2
  • 1GTP

Note: Each glucose produces two molecules of acetyl CoA; therefore, the products listed must be multiplied by two. For example, two molecules of glucose will produce the following:

  • 12 NADH
  • 8 CO2
  • 4 FADH2
  • 4 GTP

This example above is a common test question in biochemistry and cell biology courses.


  • Acetyl CoA
  • Citrate
  • Isocitrate
  • alpha-ketoglutarate
  • succinyl-CoA
  • succinate
  • fumarate
  • malate
  • oxaloacetate


  • Citrate Synthase
  • Aconitase
  • Isocitrate Dehydrogenase
  • a-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase
  • succinyl-CoA synthetase
  • succinate dehydrogenase
  • fumarase
  • malate dehydrogenase

Introduction to the Krebs Cycle 

The purpose of the citric acid cycle is to generate energy by oxidizing acetyl-CoA into carbon dioxide and serves as a precursor to other biosynthetic reactions. This process takes place in the matrix of the mitochondria. It captures the energy stored in the thiol ester bond in acetyl-CoA and later conserves it into energy packets of NADH. Although oxygen is not consumed, the cycle is aerobic since NADH and FADH2 transfer electrons to an oxygen-dependent pathway.

Pyruvate Dehydrogenase Complex – The Preparation Step

Pyruvate is synthesized into acetyl-CoA through the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex. This multi-enzyme complex, therefore, links glycolysis to the Krebs cycle. PDH complex has three enzymatic active subunits which are: pyruvate dehydrogenase (E1), dihydrolipoyl transacetylase (E2), and dihydrolipoyl dehydrogenase (E3). Importantly, pyruvate dehydrogenase has an allosteric site, which can consequently be regulated with ATP or NADH. Obviously, this step is a crucial form of regulation as it allows living organisms to assess their ATP and AMP levels.

pyruvate dehydrogenase complex for pyruvate processing


summary of pyruvate processing
Positive ModulatorsNegative Modulators

A. With the help of E1, the pyruvate combines with thiamine pyrophosphate (TPP), an enzyme cofactor, to subsequently undergo decarboxylation, in a mechanism similar to a Claisen Condensation. This therefore results in the formation of a hydroxyethyl-TPP intermediate.

reaction of pyrate with thiamine pyrophosphate. citric acid cycle

B. The hydroxyethyl group of TPP attacks the lipoamide sulfide group of E2 and eliminates the TPP derivative. Once the TPP derivative is released, the hydroxyethyl carbanion is oxidized to an acetyl group. Notice, that this step also regenerates TPP for future pyruvate reduction.

e2 reaction with lipoamide. citric acid cycle

C. As a result of transesterification, the acetyl group is transferred to CoA to produce acetyl-CoA.

reaction forming acetyl coa from lipoamide. citric acid cycle

D. E3 re-oxidizes dihydrolipoamide to regenerate the original lipoamide group of E2.

regeneration of lipoamide through dihydropoyl dehydrogenase

E. Remember in a reduction reaction there is a gain of electrons, and in oxidation, there is a loss of electrons. The electrons lost from E3 in this reaction assist in the production of NADH, which helps in the production of ATP during the electron transport chain. As is evident, the pyruvate dehydrogenase complex does not directly produce ATP.

regeneration of dihydrolipoyl dehydrogenase

Citric Acid Cycle Step 1: Citrate Synthase/Acid-Base Reaction

Citrate Synthase catalyzes the reaction between an intermediate called oxaloacetate and acetyl-CoA to later form citrate. The mechanism begins with an aldol condensation reaction and ends with the hydrolysis of a thioester bond. However, before the reaction can occur the histidines 274 and 320 of the synthase has to be protonated, while aspartate 375 is deprotonated at rest. 


citrate synthase reaction with oxaloacetate and acetyl coa. citric acid cycle

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 2: Aconitase/Dehydration-Rehydration Reaction

Aconitase is an iron-sulfur enzyme that interconverts citrate into its isomer, isocitrate, via cis-aconitase. This is a two-step mechanism that involves the addition and later removal of water.


aconitase isomerization of citrate to isocitrate. citric acid cycle

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 3: Isocitrate Dehydrogenase/ Oxidative Decarboxylation

Isocitrate dehydrogenase is an enzyme that catalyzes the oxidative decarboxylation of isocitrate to its isomer alpha-ketoglutarate. Not only is it a key rate-limiting step, but it is also the first step in the cycle that releases NADH and CO2. Mg2+ helps stabilize the carbonyl on the enolate intermediate, which eventually converts to alpha-ketoglutarate. Importantly, this step can be subsequently regulated given the presence of NADH or ATP.


isocitrate dehydrogenase oxidative dephosphorylation of isocitrate to alpha-ketoglutarate

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 4: Alpha-Ketoglutarate Dehydrogenase

Alpha-Ketoglutarate dehydrogenase is a multi-enzyme complex that converts alpha-ketoglutarate to succinyl-CoA through oxidative decarboxylation. Further, this enzyme produces the second NADH and CO2 of the Krebs Cycle. Also, the alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase complex mechanism is similar to that of pyruvate dehydrogenase.


alpha ketoglutarate dehydrogenase oxidative decarboxylation into succinyl CoA

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 5: Succinyl-CoA Synthetase-Substrate Level Phosphorylation.

Succinyl-CoA Synthetase cleaves the high-energy thiol ester of succinyl-CoA to form succinate. The energy released from the thioester bond of succinyl-CoA is used to generate GTP, which can then transfer its phosphate to ADP to yield ATP. However, the phosphate does not transfer directly to the GTP from the succinyl-phosphate, but rather through a histidine residue in the synthetase.


succinyl-coa synthetase of succinyl-coa to succinate

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 6: Succinate Dehydrogenase/ Stereospecific Dehydration

Succinate Dehydrogenase catalyzes the dehydrogenation reaction of succinate to fumarate. This enzyme contains the prosthetic group, FAD, which is covalently linked through a histidine residue. When succinate is oxidized, two hydrogen atoms are then transferred to FAD, producing FADH2. Succinate Dehydrogenase is the only membrane-bound enzyme of the Tricarboxylic Acid Cycle and is directly linked to the electron transport chain.


succinate dehydrogenase oxidative phosphorylation of succinate to fumarate

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 7: Fumarase/ Hydration Reaction

Fumarase catalyzes the hydration reaction of fumarate by adding water across the double bond to produce malate.


fumarase hydration fumarate to malate

Citric Acid Cycle Reaction 8: Malate Dehydrogenase

Malate Dehydrogenase couples the further oxidation of malate and reduction of NAD+. This forms a carbonyl, converting malate into oxaloacetate, finally completing the citric acid cycle.


malate dehydrogenase oxidation of malate to oxaloacetate

Citric Acid Cycle Cheat Sheet

citric acid cycle summary

Further Reading