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By Braun, Stephen

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Nothing happens. The ethanol rebounds, twists, and suddenly wedges tight into a small crevice in the face of the enzyme. Instantly, one of the hydrogen atoms on the ethanol molecule is ripped off. Shorn of its hydrogen atom (hence, dehydrogenated), the ethanol is released by the enzyme, which is now ready to take on the next ethanol molecule that happens its way. The molecule left behind by this surgery is no longer ethanol. It is called acetaldehyde. The removal of that single hydrogen atom renders ethanol pharamacologically inactive: you can’t get drunk on acetaldehyde.

Since you are so close to the stomach lining, you decide to take a swim through the mucus and follow some ethanol molecules. Contrary to previous beliefs, the stomach is not the primary route by which ethanol enters the blood. Some absorption does take place, but it is generally insignificant to the experience of intoxication. One reason for this becomes clear as you slip and slither between mucous molecules. Directly ahead you see a huge, globular molecule the size of a two-car garage. It’s part of the body’s first line of defense against ethanol: a detoxifying enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase.

Meyerhof. Meyerhof was trying to figure out how sugar is metabolized in our bodies; when he solved this problem, he also had the answer to the age-old question of where alcohol comes from. The process starts with glucose, which is the sugar both humans and yeast use to power their bodies. Other sugars, such as the sucrose (table sugar) used by the Soviet home distillers, must be converted to glucose before things get going, chemically speaking. Like humans, yeast cells prefer to burn their glucose with oxygen to produce energy.

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