A general definition of metabolic pathways useful for systematic organization and analysis of complex metabolic networks.
A set of linear pathways often does not capture the full range of behaviors of a metabolic network. The concept of 'elementary flux modes' provides a mathematical tool to define and comprehensively describe all metabolic routes that are both stoichiometrically and thermodynamically feasible for a group of enzymes. We have used this concept to analyze the interplay between the pentose phosphate pathway (PPP) and glycolysis. The set of elementary modes for this system involves conventional glycolysis, a futile cycle, all the modes of PPP function described in biochemistry textbooks, and additional modes that are a priori equally entitled to pathway status. Applications include maximizing product yield in amino acid and antibiotic synthesis, reconstruction and consistency checks of metabolism from genome data, analysis of enzyme deficiencies, and drug target identification in metabolic networks.