The lipid molecules (mostly phospholipids) that make up the membrane have a polar, hydrophilic head and two hydrophobic hydrocarbon tails. When the lipids are immersed in an aqueous solution the lipids spontaneously bury the tails together and leave the hydrophilic heads exposed. Thus this is a handy membrane to use, because it can automatically fix itself when torn. There are three different major classes of lipid molecules – phospholipids, cholesterol, and glycolipids. Different membranes have different ratios of the three lipids.

What makes the membrane truly special is the presence of different proteins on the surface that are used for various functions such as cell surface receptors, enzymes, surface antigens, and transporters. Many of the membrane-associated proteins have hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. The hydrophilic regions are used to help anchor the protein inside of the cell membrane. Some proteins extend across the lipid bilayer, others cross the bilayer several times.

Membrane Transport of Small Molecules

Because of the hydrophobic interior of the lipid bilayer, polar molecules cannot enter the cell. However, cells devised means of transferring small polar molecules. Transport proteins, each specialized for a certain molecule, can transport polar molecules across the membrane. There are several types of membrane transport proteins. Uniports simply move solutes from one side to another. Cotransport systems work by simultaneously sending two solutes across the lipid bilayer. There are two types of cotransport systems – symport, in which the solutes are sent in the same direction, or antiport, in which they are sent in opposite directions. These transport proteins work passively, meaning that the cell doesn’t have to expend energy sending the solute in or out. This is dependent on the solute moving in its natural direction – i.e. moving from more concentrated solution to less concentrated, or from positive to negative.

Some specific examples of transport membranes are channel proteins, which allow solutes to cross if they are the correct size and charge. Carrier proteins bind to the solute and lead it through the bilayer. These are examples of passive transport. To move a solute against their natural direction – for example higher concentration to lower concentration, energy (ATP) is needed to pump the solute in or out.

An example of active transport is the sodium-potassium pump, which in conjunction with the potassium leak channel, allows the cell the control it’s membrane potential. The sodium-potassium-ATPase, which uses the energy of ATP hydrolysis, pump pumps sodium out and potassium in, which creates a high concentration of potassium inside the cell, and a low concentration outside. The reverse applies to the sodium. The potassium leak channel allows the potassium to leak out (so to even out the concentrations), which gives the cell and negative charge on the inside.

Membrane Transport of Macromolecules

Most cells use exocytosis and endocytosis to secrete and ingest macromolecules, respectively. In exocytosis the contents of special vesicles are released when the vesicle fuses with the cell membrane. In endocytosis the membrane depresses and pinches off, enclosing the molecule. Two different sizes are formed – pinocytotic (small) and phagocytic (large).

In receptor-mediated endocytosis, coated pits and vesicles bind to specific receptors on the cell surface, allowing the cell to select what molecules to take and what to reject.

Membrane Receptors

The cell membrane is pocketed with receptors and antigens. Molecules targeted toward that specific cell will bind with the cell surface receptor, which binds the signaling molecule and sends a signal that alters the behavior of the target cell. Antigens are used to tell the cell whether foreign materials are present. If any foreign materials are detected the immune system will mobilize its killer T-cells to destroy the foreign cell.

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