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See Inside December 2009

The Double Life of ATP in Humans

The molecule ATP, famous as an essential energy source inside cells, also carries critical messages between cells. That dual role is suggesting fresh ideas for fighting human diseases



Ken Eward

One of the first and most enduring facts most students learn in biology class is that all living cells use a small molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as fuel. That universal energy currency drives the biological reactions that allow cells to function and life to flourish—making ATP a crucial player in the biological world.

Less commonly known, however, is that what is perhaps the most produced and consumed molecule in the human body also has a completely separate but no less essential role outside of cells. A long series of discoveries has now demonstrated beyond doubt that ATP is a critical signaling molecule that allows cells and tissues throughout the body to communicate with one another. The universal fuel, in effect, serves as a common language as well.

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