In 1913, Leonor Michaelis and Maud Menten proposed a quantitative theory of enzyme kinetics, which is referred to as Michaelis-Menten kinetics. Their work was further developed by G. E. Briggs and J. B. S. Haldane, who derived numerous kinetic equations that are still widely used today.

Enzymes can perform up to several million catalytic reactions per second; to determine the maximum speed of an enzymatic reaction, the substrate concentration is increased until a constant rate of product formation is achieved. This is the maximum velocity (*V*_{max}) of the enzyme. In this state, all enzyme active sites are saturated with substrate. However, *V*_{max} is only one kinetic parameter that biochemists are interested in. The amount of substrate needed to achieve a given rate of reaction is also of interest. This can be expressed by the Michaelis-Menten constant (*K*_{m}), which is the substrate concentration required for an enzyme to reach one half its maximum velocity. Each enzyme has a characteristic *K*_{m} for a given substrate.

The efficiency of an enzyme can be expressed in terms of *k*_{cat}/*K*_{m}. The quantity *k*_{cat}, also called the turnover number, incorporates the rate constants for all steps in the reaction, and is the quotient of *V*_{max} and the total enzyme concentration. *k*_{cat}/*K*_{m} is a useful quantity for comparing different enzymes against each other, or the same enzyme with different substrates, because it takes both affinity and catalytic ability into consideration. The theoretical maximum for *k*_{cat}/*K*_{m}, called the diffusion limit, is about 10^{8} to 10^{9} (M^{-1} s^{-1}). At this point, every collision of the enzyme with its substrate will result in catalysis and the rate of product formation is not limited by the reaction rate but by the diffusion rate. Enzymes that reach this *k*_{cat}/*K*_{m} value are called *catalytically perfect* or *kinetically perfect*. Example of such enzymes are triose-phosphate isomerase, carbonic anhydrase, acetylcholinesterase, catalase, fumarase, beta-lactamase, and superoxide dismutase.

Some enzymes operate with kinetics which are faster than diffusion rates, which would seem to be impossible. Several mechanisms have been invoked to explain this phenomenon. Some proteins are believed to accelerate catalysis by drawing their substrate in and preorienting them by using dipolar electric fields. Some invoke a quantum-mechanical tunneling explanation whereby a proton or an electron can tunnel through activation barriers, although for protons tunneling remains somewhat controversial.

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