What is the Warburg Effect?

Posted by Corinne Carland on 4/13/15 9:50 AM


Otto Warburg, ladies and germs.

The Warburg Effect

We know that although cancer cells are derived from our own healthy cells, they undergo many changes that render them distinctive from normal cells. In the 1950s a scientist named Otto Warburg discovered quite a startling difference in the metabolism between tumor cells and normal cells. Called the Warburg Effect, it describes a difference in how cancer cells obtain energy. The Warburg Effect is most often learned in college biology or molecular biology classes, and it’s a subtle concept. Let’s go over it here, starting with a refresher on cellular respiration.

Cells derive energy from glucose through a process called respiration. Respiration can be aerobic (with oxygen) or anaerobic (without oxygen). Aerobic respiration requires oxidative phosphorylation in the mitochondria and produces 36 mols of ATP per mol of glucose and CO2 as a byproduct. Anaerobic respiration metabolizes glucose to lactate and produces 2 mols of ATP per mol of glucose. Human cells can (and do) undergo both forms but since aerobic respiration results in such a greater energy yield, if oxygen is present, it is the preferred mechanism. 

In cancer cells an interesting phenomenon exists. Cancer cells, even in the presence of oxygen, will preferentially metabolize the majority of glucose through anaerobic fermentation instead of aerobic respiration. This is the Warburg Effect, and you can see why it was startling. The cancer cells seem to have chosen a metabolism that gives them less energy.

Energy production in differentiated versus proliferative/tumor tissue. In the presence of oxygen, differentiated cells undergo oxidative phosphorylation to metabolize glucose to 36 ATP. Proliferative tissue (tumors) undergoes glycolysis irrespective of the presence of oxygen. This phenomenon is known as the Warburg effect. 

Why could this be? What is driving this change? 

As a biology tutor, I urge my students to always be thinking about pathways and processes: if something goes wrong in one place how can it affect the cell in an empirical way, a way we could measure in a lab?

One hypothesis proposed to explain the Warburg effect was that cancer cells have defective mitochondria. However, several subsequent studies found that wasn’t likely. Another suggestion is that tumors live densely packed together in an in-vivo (within the body), naturally hypoxic (lower oxygen concentration) environment. The lack of oxygen would induce cells to switch to anaerobic respiration. However, that doesn’t explain why such cells in vitro (out of the body) still exhibit the Warburg Effect. Other theories consider how switching respiration pathways could convey a competitive advantage to the cell (always be considering that when you see biology questions too!). One theory suggests that the TCA cycle in aerobic respiration is being used in other capacities, like for example, synthesizing biomaterials for a rapidly dividing tumor cell. In this way, the cell has chosen to produce less energy in return for being able to produce more biomass.

The Warburg Effect, although now documented for over 80 years is a topic that scientists are still investigating. If we can understand how cancer cells get energy and divide, we can design targeted drugs to attack them.

And if you’re having trouble with this or any other biology topic, consider giving Cambridge Coaching a call. We have expert biology tutors available to teach students at any level, in NYC, Boston, and online!


  • Vander Heiden, M.G.; Cantley, L.C.; and Thompson, C. B. Understanding the Warburg Effect: The Metabolic Requirements of Cell Proliferation. Science. 2009, 324, 1029-1033
  • Nakashima R.A.; Paggi M.G.; & Pedersen P.L. Contributions of Glycolysis and Oxidative Phosphorylation to Adenosine 5’-triphosphate Production in AS-30D Hepatoma cells. Cancer Res, 1984, 44:5702-5706. 
  • Moreno-Sanchez, R.; Rodriguez-Enriquez S.; Marin-Hernandez; Saaverdra E. Energy Metabolism in Cancer Cells. FEBS Journal, 2007, 274: 1393-1418.

For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our private biology tutors in NYC, Boston, and online biology tutors: Breaking Down the Krebs Cycle, How Do I Remember the Steps of Photosythesis?, and Explaining the Central Dogma of Biology.

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Tags: biology