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The Cell Membrane

[Back to Microscopy and CeIIs]

$tructure of
CeII
membrane
Lipid Diffusion
Osmosis and
Water PotentiaI
Passive
Transport
(FaciIitated
Diffusion)
Active
Transport
Endocytosis
and Exocytosis

The $tructure of the CeII Membrane
The cell membrane (or plasma membrane) surrounds all living cells, and is the cell's most
important organelle. Ìt controls how substances can move in and out of the cell and is
responsible for many other properties of the cell as well. The membranes that surround the
nucleus and other organelles are almost identical to the cell membrane. Membranes are
composed of phospholipids, proteins and carbohydrates arranged in afluid mosaic structure, as
shown in this diagram.

The phospholipids form a thin, flexible sheet, while the proteins "float" in the phospholipid sheet
like icebergs, and the carbohydrates extend out from the proteins.
The phosphoIipids are arranged in a bilayer, with their polar, hydrophilic phosphate heads
facing outwards, and their non-polar, hydrophobic fatty acid tails facing each other in the middle
of the bilayer. This hydrophobic layer acts as a barrier to all but the smallest molecules,
effectively isolating the two sides of the membrane. Different kinds of membranes can contain
phospholipids with different fatty acids, affecting the strength and flexibility of the membrane,
and animal cell membranes also contain cholesterol linking the fatty acids together and so
stabilising and strengthening the membrane.
The proteins usually span from one side of the phospholipid bilayer to the other (integral
proteins), but can also sit on one of the surfaces (peripheral proteins). They can slide around
the membrane very quickly and collide with each other, but can never flip from one side to the
other. The proteins have hydrophilic amino acids in contact with the water on the outside of
membranes, and hydrophobic amino acids in contact with the fatty chains inside the membrane.
Proteins comprise about 50% of the mass of membranes, and are responsible for most of the
membrane's properties.
O Proteins that span the membrane are usually involved in transporting substances across the
membrane (more details below).
O Proteins on the inside surface of cell membranes are often attached to the cytoskeleton and are
involved in maintaining the cell's shape, or in cell motility. They may also be enzymes, catalysing
reactions in the cytoplasm.
O Proteins on the outside surface of cell membranes can act as receptors by having a specific
binding site where hormones or other chemicals can bind. This binding then triggers other events
in the cell. They may also be involved in cell signalling and cell recognition, or they may be
enzymes, such as maltase in the small intestine (more in digestion).
The carbohydrates are found on the outer surface of all eukaryotic cell membranes, and are
attached to the membrane proteins or sometimes to the phospholipids. Proteins with
carbohydrates attached are called glycoproteins, while phospholipids with carbohydrates
attached are called glycolipids. The carbohydrates are short polysaccharides composed of a
variety of different monosaccharides, and form acell coat or glycocalyx outside the cell
membrane. The glycocalyx is involved in protection and cell recognition, and antigens such as
the ABO antigens on blood cells are usually cell-surface glycoproteins.
Remember that a membrane is not just a lipid bilayer, but comprises the lipid, protein and
carbohydrate parts.

Movement across CeII Membranes [back to top]
ell membranes are a barrier to most substances, and this property allows materials to be
concentrated inside cells, excluded from cells, or simply separated from the outside
environment. This is compartmentalisation is essential for life, as it enables reactions to take
place that would otherwise be impossible. Eukaryotic cells can also compartmentalise materials
inside organelles. Obviously materials need to be able to enter and leave cells, and there are five main
methods by which substances can move across a cell membrane:
Ŧ Lipid Diffusion
Ŧ Osmosis
Ŧ Passive Transport
Ŧ Active Transport
Ŧ Vesicles

Lipid Diffusion (or $impIe Diffusion) [back to top]

A few substances can diffuse directly through the lipid bilayer part of the membrane. The only
substances that can do this are lipid-soluble molecules such as steroids, or very small
molecules, such as H
2
O, O
2
and O
2
. For these molecules the membrane is no barrier at all.
Since lipid diffusion is (obviously) a passive diffusion process, no energy is involved and
substances can only move down their concentration gradient. Lipid diffusion cannot be
controlled by the cell, in the sense of being switched on or off.

Osmosis [back to top]
Osmosis is the diffusion of water across a membrane. Ìt is in fact just normal lipid diffusion, but
since water is so important and so abundant in cells (its concentration is about 50 M), the
diffusion of water has its own name - osmosis. The contents of cells are essentially solutions of
numerous different solutes, and the more concentrated the solution, the more solute molecules
there are in a given volume, so the fewer water molecules there are. Water molecules can
diffuse freely across a membrane, but always down their concentration gradient, so water
therefore diffuses from a dilute to a concentrated solution.

Water PotentiaI. Osmosis can be quantified using water potential, so we can calculate which
way water will move, and how fast. Water potential (, the Greek letter psi, pronounced "sy") is
simply the effective concentration of water. Ìt is measured in units of pressure (Pa, or usually
kPa), and the rule is that water always "falls" from a high to a low water potential (in other words
it's a bit like gravity potential or electrical potential). 100% pure water has Y = 0, which is the
highest possible water potential, so all solutions have < 0, and you cannot get > 0.

Osmotic Pressure (OP). This is an older term used to describe osmosis. The more
concentrated a solution, the higher the osmotic pressure. Ìt therefore means the opposite to
water potential, and so water move from a low to a high OP. Always use rather than OP.
CeIIs and Osmosis. The concentration (or OP) of the solution that surrounds a cell will affect
the state of the cell, due to osmosis. There are three possible concentrations of solution to
consider:
O Ìsotonic solution a solution of equal OP (or concentration) to a cell
O Hypertonic solution a solution of higher OP (or concentration) than a cell
O Hypotonic solution a solution of lower OP (or concentration) than a cell
The effects of these solutions on cells are shown in this diagram:

These are problems that living cells face all the time. For example:
O Simple animal cells (protozoans) in fresh water habitats are surrounded by a hypotonic solution
and constantly need to expel water using contractile vacuoles to prevent swelling and lysis.
O ells in marine environments are surrounded by a hypertonic solution, and must actively pump
ions into their cells to reduce their water potential and so reduce water loss by osmosis.
O Young non-woody plants rely on cell turgor for their support, and without enough water they wilt.
Plants take up water through their root hair cells by osmosis, and must actively pump ions into
their cells to keep them hypertonic compared to the soil. This is particularly difficult for plants
rooted in salt water.

Passive Transport (or FaciIitated Diffusion) [back to top]

Passive transport is the transport of substances across a membrane by a trans-
membrane protein molecule. The transport proteins tend to be specific for one molecule
(a bit like enzymes), so substances can only cross a membrane if it contains the
appropriate protein. As the name suggests, this is a passive diffusion process, so no
energy is involved and substances can only move down their concentration gradient.
There are two kinds of transport protein:
O hannel Proteins form a water-filled pore or channel in the membrane. This
allows charged substances (usually ions) to diffuse across membranes. Most
channels can be gated (opened or closed), allowing the cell to control the entry
and exit of ions.
O arrier Proteins have a binding site for a specific solute and constantly flip
between two states so that the site is alternately open to opposite sides of the
membrane. The substance will bind on the side where it at a high concentration
and be released where it is at a low concentration.

Active Transport (or Pumping) [back to top]

Active transport is the pumping of substances across a membrane by a trans-membrane protein
pump molecule. The protein binds a molecule of the substance to be transported on one side of
the membrane, changes shape, and releases it on the other side. The proteins are highly
specific, so there is a different protein pump for each molecule to be transported. The protein
pumps are also ATPase enzymes, since they catalyse the splitting of ATP ADP + phosphate
(Pi), and use the energy released to change shape and pump the molecule. Pumping is
therefore an active process, and is the only transport mechanism that can transport
substances up their concentration gradient.
The Na
+
K
+
Pump This transport protein is present in the cell membranes of all animal cells and
is the most abundant and important of all membrane pumps.

The Na
+
K
+
pump is a complex pump, simultaneously pumping three sodium ions out of the cell
and two potassium ions into the cell for each molecule of ATP split. This means that, apart from
moving ions around, it also generates a potential difference across the cell membrane. This is
called the membrane potential, and all animal cells have it. Ìt varies from 20 to 200 mV, but and
is always negative inside the cell. Ìn most cells the Na
+
K
+
pump runs continuously and uses
30% of all the cell's energy (70% in nerve cells).
The rate of diffusion of a substance across a
membrane increases as its concentration gradient
increases, but whereas lipid diffusion shows a
linear relationship, facilitated diffusion has a curved
relationship with a maximum rate. This is due to the
rate being limited by the number of transport
proteins. The rate of active transport also increases
with concentration gradient, but most importantly it
has a high rate even when there is no
concentration difference across the membrane.
Active transport stops if cellular respiration stops, since there is no energy.

VesicIes [back to top]
The processes described so far only apply to small molecules. Large molecules (such as
proteins, polysaccharides and nucleotides) and even whole cells are moved in and out of cells
by using membrane vesicles.
O Endocytosis is the transport of materials into a cell. Materials are enclosed by a fold of the cell
membrane, which then pinches shut to form a closed vesicle. Strictly speaking the material has
not yet crossed the membrane, so it is usually digested and the small product molecules are
absorbed by the methods above. When the materials and the vesicles are small (such as a
protein molecule) the process is known as pinocytosis (cell drinking), and if the materials are
large (such as a white blood cell ingesting a bacterial cell) the process is known
as phagocytosis (cell eating).

O Exocytosis is the transport of materials out of a cell. Ìt is the exact reverse of endocytosis.
Materials to be exported must first be enclosed in a membrane vesicle, usually from the RER and
Golgi Body. Hormones and digestive enzymes are secreted by exocytosis from the secretory
cells of the intestine and endocrine glands.
Sometimes materials can pass straight through cells without ever making contact with the
cytoplasm by being taken in by endocytosis at one end of a cell and passing out by exocytosis
at the other end.
$ummary of Membrane Transport
Method Uses energy Uses proteins $pecific ControIIabIe
Lipid Diffusion N N N N
Osmosis N N Y N
Passive Transport N Y Y Y
Active Transport Y Y Y Y
Vesicles Y N Y Y

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