Metabolic reprogramming extensively occurs in proliferating cancer cells. This phenomenon occurs highly heterogeneously, but its origin has remained unclear. Here we use a physicochemical concept of free electron potential (FEP) and its equation of state to profile metabolites. We demonstrate that FEP change between substrates and products exactly reflects electrons dissipated in a metabolic transformation. Based on the law of conservation of electron in chemical reactions, a function of FEP change for central metabolism in proliferating cells are further derived, and it can accurately predict metabolic behaviors under hypoxia by maximizing the cellular FEP change to consume electrons. Therefore, enabling electron transfer dictates metabolic reprogramming in hypoxic cells, which underlies the major findings in cancer metabolism and is supported by our experiments. Importantly, our model established on FEP helps to reveal a combination of promising targets to inhibit tumor growth under hypoxia by blocking electron consumption, and could also guide future studies on cancer metabolism under hypoxia.
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