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Biochemistry Of Urea Cycle

Unlocking the secrets of the intricate biochemistry behind the essential urea cycle unveils a fascinating world of nitrogen metabolism and its crucial role in maintaining homeostasis.

USMLE Guide: Biochemistry of Urea Cycle


The urea cycle, also known as the ornithine cycle, is a vital biochemical pathway that occurs in the liver. It plays a crucial role in the elimination of toxic ammonia, which is a byproduct of amino acid metabolism. This USMLE guide aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the biochemistry of the urea cycle.

Key Enzymes and Steps

  1. Step 1: Formation of Carbamoyl Phosphate

    • Enzyme: Carbamoyl phosphate synthetase I (CPS I)
    • Substrates: Ammonia, bicarbonate, and ATP
    • Product: Carbamoyl phosphate
  2. Step 2: Formation of Citrulline

    • Enzyme: Ornithine transcarbamylase (OTC)
    • Substrates: Carbamoyl phosphate and ornithine
    • Product: Citrulline
  3. Step 3: Formation of Argininosuccinate

    • Enzyme: Argininosuccinate synthetase (AS)
    • Substrates: Citrulline and aspartate
    • Product: Argininosuccinate
  4. Step 4: Formation of Arginine and Fumarate

    • Enzyme: Argininosuccinate lyase (AL)
    • Substrate: Argininosuccinate
    • Products: Arginine and fumarate
  5. Step 5: Formation of Urea and Ornithine

    • Enzyme: Arginase
    • Substrate: Arginine
    • Products: Urea and ornithine

Regulation of the Urea Cycle

  • N-Acetylglutamate (NAG): Activates CPS I, the enzyme responsible for the first step of the urea cycle. NAG production is stimulated by the presence of high levels of ammonia and amino acids like arginine.
  • Ornithine Transcarbamylase (OTC): This enzyme is regulated by substrate availability. High levels of carbamoyl phosphate and low levels of ornithine can increase OTC activity.
  • Argininosuccinate Synthetase (AS): This enzyme is allosterically activated by citrulline, aspartate, and ATP. It is inhibited by argininosuccinate.
  • Arginase: The activity of arginase is regulated by the levels of arginine. High levels of arginine can inhibit arginase and divert the flow towards the formation of nitric oxide.

Clinical Relevance

  • Urea Cycle Disorders: Deficiencies in any of the enzymes involved in the urea cycle can lead to urea cycle disorders. These disorders are characterized by the accumulation of ammonia, resulting in neurologic symptoms, vomiting, and even coma. Diagnosis is often made through laboratory tests, including elevated ammonia levels and abnormal amino acid profiles.
  • Hyperammonemia: Conditions that cause excessive ammonia production or impair urea cycle function can lead to hyperammonemia. This can be seen in liver diseases, such as cirrhosis or hepatitis, as well as inborn errors of metabolism affecting the urea cycle.
  • Treatment: Management of urea cycle disorders involves dietary protein restriction, administration of nitrogen scavengers (e.g., sodium phenylacetate and sodium benzoate), and supplementation of arginine or citrulline.


Understanding the biochemistry of the urea cycle is crucial for medical professionals, especially when encountering patients with urea cycle disorders or hyperammonemia. This USMLE guide has provided an overview of the key enzymes, steps, regulation, and clinical relevance of the urea cycle, equipping you with essential knowledge for your exams and medical practice.

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