CIE A Level Biology (9700) 2019-2021

Revision Notes

12.1.6 Respiratory Quotient (RQ)

Respiratory Quotient (RQ)

  • The respiratory quotient (RQ) is: the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules produced to oxygen molecules taken in during respiration

RQ = CO2 / O2

RQ values of different respiratory substrates

  • Carbohydrates, lipids and proteins have different typical RQ values
  • This is because of the number of carbon-hydrogen bonds differs in each type of biological molecule
    • More carbon-hydrogen bonds means that more hydrogen atoms can be used to create a proton gradient
    • More hydrogens means that more ATP molecules can be produced
    • More oxygen is therefore required to breakdown the molecule (in the last step of oxidative phosphorylation to form water)
  • When glucose is aerobically respired equal amounts of carbon dioxide are produced to oxygen taken in, meaning it has an RQ value of 1

Glucose RQ

C6H1206 + 6O2 → 6CO2 + 6H2O


RQ table

RQ Table, downloadable AS & A Level Biology revision notes

Exam Tip

Some questions may ask you to suggest what substrate is being respired during an experiment based on the RQ value – so make yourself familiar with the values in the table.

Calculating RQs

  • The respiratory quotient is calculated from respiration equations
  • It involves comparing the ratios of carbon dioxide given out to oxygen taken in
  • The formula for this is:

Calculating RQs equation

  • If you know the molecular formula of the substrate being aerobically respired then you can create a balanced equation to calculate the RQ value
  • In a balanced equation the number before the chemical formula can be taken as the number of molecules/moles of that compound
    • This is because the same number of molecules of any gas take up the same volume eg. 12 molecules of carbon dioxide take up the same volume as 12 molecules of oxygen
  • Glucose has a simple 1:1 ratio and RQ value of 1 but other substrates have more complex ratios leading to different RQ values

Worked example: RQ for a lipid

Linoleic acid (fatty acid found in nuts) has the molecular formula C18H32O2

Step 1: Create respiration equation

C18H32O2 + O2 → CO2 + H2O

Step 2: Balance the equation

C x 18   C x 1

H x 32   H x 2

O x 4   O x 3

Step 3: Create the full equation

C18H32O2 + 25O2 → 18CO2 + 16H2O

Step 3: Use RQ formula

CO2 / O2 = RQ

18 / 25 = 0.72

Calculating the RQ for anaerobic respiration

  • Anaerobic respiration is respiration that takes place without oxygen but does produce a small amount of ATP
  • Depending on the organism anaerobic respiration in cells can be done via lactate or ethanol fermentation
    • Mammalian muscle cells use lactate fermentation
    • Plant tissue cells and yeast use ethanol fermentation
  • The RQ cannot be calculated for anaerobic respiration in muscle cells because no oxygen is used and no carbon dioxide is produced during lactate fermentation
  • For yeast cells the RQ tends towards infinity as no oxygen is used while carbon dioxide is still being produced

Worked example: RQ for Anaerobic Respiration

Ethanol fermentation in lettuce roots

glucose → ethanol + carbon dioxide + energy

Step 1: Create the respiration equation

C6H12O6 → C2H5OH + CO2 + energy

Step 2: Balance the equation

C6H12O6 → 2C2H5OH + 2CO2 + energy

Step 3: Calculate the RQ value

CO2 / O2 = RQ

2 / 0 = ∞ Infinity

Exam Tip

Make sure the respiration equation you are working with is fully balanced before you start doing any calculations to find out the RQ value.

Author: Lára

Lára graduated from Oxford University in Biological Sciences and has now been a science tutor working in the UK for several years. Lára has a particular interest in the area of infectious disease and epidemiology, and enjoys creating original educational materials that develop confidence and facilitate learning.

Join Save My Exams

Download all our Revision Notes as PDFs

Try a Free Sample of our revision notes as a printable PDF.

Join Now
Go to Top