Living things fall into three large groups: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. The first two groups include non-nucleated cells, and the third contains all eukaryotes. A relatively sparse fossil record is available to help us discern what the first members of each of these lineages looked like, so it is possible that all the events that led up to the last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes will remain unknown. However, comparative biology of extant organisms and the limited fossil record provide some insights into the history of Eukarya.
The earliest fossils found appear to be bacteria, most likely cyanobacteria. They are about 3.5 billion years old and are recognizable because of their relatively complex structure and, for bacteria, relatively large cells. Most other bacteria and archaea have small cells, 1 or 2 µm in size, and would be difficult to pick out as fossils. Most living eukaryotes have cells measuring 10 µm or greater. Structures this size, which might be fossils, appear in the geological record about 2.1 billion years ago.
Characteristics of eukaryotes
Data from these fossils have led biologists to the conclusion that living eukaryotes are all descendants of a single common ancestor. Mapping the characteristics found in all major groups of eukaryotes reveals that the following characteristics must have been present in the last common ancestor, because these characteristics are present in at least some of the members of each major lineage.
- Cells with nuclei surrounded by a nuclear envelope with nuclear pores. This is the single characteristic that is both necessary and sufficient to define an organism as a eukaryote. All extant eukaryotes have cells with nuclei.
- Mitochondria. Some extant eukaryotes have very reduced remnants of mitochondria in their cells, whereas other members of their lineages have “typical” mitochondria.
- A cytoskeleton containing the structural and motility components called actin microfilaments and microtubules. All extant eukaryotes have these cytoskeletal elements.
- Flagella and cilia, organelles associated with cell motility. Some extant eukaryotes lack flagella and/or cilia, but they are descended from ancestors that possessed them.
- Chromosomes, each consisting of a linear DNA molecule coiled around basic (alkaline) proteins called histones. The few eukaryotes with chromosomes lacking histones clearly evolved from ancestors that had them.
- Mitosis, a process of nuclear division wherein replicated chromosomes are divided and separated using elements of the cytoskeleton. Mitosis is universally present in eukaryotes.
- Sex, a process of genetic recombination unique to eukaryotes in which diploid nuclei at one stage of the life cycle undergo meiosis to yield haploid nuclei and subsequent karyogamy, a stage where two haploid nuclei fuse together to create a diploid zygote nucleus.
- Members of all major lineages have cell walls, and it might be reasonable to conclude that the last common ancestor could make cell walls during some stage of its life cycle. However, not enough is known about eukaryotes’ cell walls and their development to know how much homology exists among them. If the last common ancestor could make cell walls, it is clear that this ability must have been lost in many groups.
Endosymbiosis and the evolution of eukaryotes
In order to understand eukaryotic organisms fully, it is necessary to understand that all extant eukaryotes are descendants of a chimeric organism that was a composite of a host cell and the cell(s) of an alpha-proteobacterium that “took up residence” inside it. This major theme in the origin of eukaryotes is known as endosymbiosis, one cell engulfing another such that the engulfed cell survives and both cells benefit. Over many generations, a symbiotic relationship can result in two organisms that depend on each other so completely that neither could survive on its own. Endosymbiotic events likely contributed to the origin of the last common ancestor of today’s eukaryotes and to later diversification in certain lineages of eukaryotes. Before explaining this further, it is necessary to consider metabolism in bacteria and archaea.
Bacterial and archaeal metabolism
Many important metabolic processes arose in bacteria and archaea, and some of these, such as nitrogen fixation, are never found in eukaryotes. The process of aerobic respiration is found in all major lineages of eukaryotes, and it is localized in the mitochondria. Aerobic respiration is also found in many lineages of bacteria and archaea, but it is not present in all of them, and many forms of evidence suggest that such anaerobic microbes never carried out aerobic respiration nor did their ancestors.
While today’s atmosphere is about one-fifth molecular oxygen (O2), geological evidence shows that it originally lacked O2. Without oxygen, aerobic respiration would not be expected, and living things would have relied on fermentation instead. At some point around 3.5 billion years ago, some bacteria and archaea began using energy from sunlight to power anabolic processes that reduce carbon dioxide to form organic compounds. That is, they evolved the ability to photosynthesize. Hydrogen, derived from various sources, was captured using light-powered reactions to reduce fixed carbon dioxide in the Calvin cycle. The group of Gram-negative bacteria that gave rise to cyanobacteria used water as the hydrogen source and released O2 as a waste product.
Eventually, the amount of photosynthetic oxygen built up in some environments to levels that posed a risk to living organisms, since it can damage many organic compounds. Various metabolic processes evolved that protected organisms from oxygen; one of which, aerobic respiration, also generated high levels of ATP. It became widely present among microbes, including in a group we now call alpha-proteobacteria. Organisms that did not acquire aerobic respiration had to remain in oxygen-free environments. Originally, oxygen-rich environments were likely localized around places where cyanobacteria were active, but by about 2 billion years ago, geological evidence shows that oxygen was building up to higher concentrations in the atmosphere. Oxygen levels similar to today’s levels only arose within the last 700 million years.
Recall that the first fossils that we believe to be eukaryotes are about 2 billion years old, so they appeared as oxygen levels were increasing. Also, recall that all extant eukaryotes descended from an ancestor with mitochondria. These organelles were first observed by light microscopists in the late 1800s, where they appeared to be somewhat worm-shaped structures that seemed to be moving around in the cell. Some early observers suggested that they might be bacteria living inside host cells, but these hypotheses remained unknown or rejected in most scientific communities.
As cell biology developed in the twentieth century, it became clear that mitochondria were the organelles responsible for producing ATP using aerobic respiration. In the 1960s, American biologist Lynn Margulis developed endosymbiotic theory, which states that eukaryotes may have been a product of one cell engulfing another (one living within another) and evolving over time until the separate cells were no longer recognizable as such. In 1967, Margulis introduced new work on the theory and substantiated her findings through microbiological evidence. Although Margulis’ work initially was met with resistance, this once-revolutionary hypothesis is now widely (but not completely) accepted, with work progressing on uncovering the steps involved in this evolutionary process and the key players involved. Much still remains to be discovered about the origins of the cells that now make up the cells in all living eukaryotes.
Broadly, it has become clear that many of our nuclear genes and the molecular machinery responsible for replication and expression appear closely related to those in Archaea. On the other hand, the metabolic organelles and genes responsible for many energy-harvesting processes had their origins in bacteria. Much remains to be clarified about how this relationship occurred; this continues to be an exciting field of discovery in biology. For instance, it is not known whether the endosymbiotic event that led to mitochondria occurred before or after the host cell had a nucleus. Such organisms would be among the extinct precursors of the last common ancestor of eukaryotes.
One of the major features distinguishing bacteria and archaea from eukaryotes is the presence of mitochondria. Eukaryotic cells may contain anywhere from one to several thousand mitochondria, depending on the cell’s level of energy consumption. Each mitochondrion measures 1 to 10 or greater micrometers in length and exists in the cell as an organelle that can be ovoid, worm-shaped, or intricately branched. Mitochondria arise from the division of existing mitochondria; they may fuse together; and they may be moved around inside the cell by interactions with the cytoskeleton. However, mitochondria cannot survive outside the cell. As the atmosphere was oxygenated by photosynthesis, and as successful aerobic microbes evolved, evidence suggests that an ancestral cell with some membrane compartmentalization engulfed a free-living aerobic bacterium, specifically an alpha-proteobacterium, thereby giving the host cell the ability to use oxygen to release energy stored in nutrients. Alpha-proteobacteria are a large group of bacteria that includes species symbiotic with plants, disease organisms that can infect humans via ticks, and many free-living species that use light for energy. Several lines of evidence support that mitochondria are derived from this endosymbiotic event. Most mitochondria are shaped like alpha-proteobacteria and are surrounded by two membranes, which would result when one membrane-bound organism is engulfed into a vacuole by another membrane-bound organism. The mitochondrial inner membrane is extensive and involves substantial infoldings called cristae that resemble the textured, outer surface of alpha-proteobacteria. The matrix and inner membrane are rich with the enzymes necessary for aerobic respiration.
Eukaryotic Cell: Structure and Function
Introduction to eukaryotic cells
By definition, eukaryotic cells are cells that contain a membrane-bound nucleus, a structural feature that is not present in bacterial or archaeal cells. In addition to the nucleus, eukaryotic cells are characterized by numerous membrane-bound organelles such as the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, chloroplasts, mitochondria, and others.
In previous sections, we began to consider the Design Challenge of making cells larger than a small bacterium—more precisely, growing cells to sizes at which, in the eyes of natural selection, relying on diffusion of substances for transport through a highly viscous cytosol comes with inherent functional trade-offs that offset most selective benefits of getting larger. In the lectures and readings on bacterial cell structure, we discovered some morphological features of large bacteria that allow them to effectively overcome diffusion-limited size barriers (e.g., filling the cytoplasm with a large storage vacuole maintains a small volume for metabolic activity that remains compatible with diffusion-driven transport).
As we transition our focus to eukaryotic cells, we want you to approach the study by constantly returning to the Design Challenge. We will cover a large number of subcellular structures that are unique to eukaryotes, and you will certainly be expected to know the names of these structures or organelles, to associate them with one or more "functions", and to identify them on a canonical cartoon representation of a eukaryotic cell. This memorization exercise is necessary but not sufficient. We will also ask you to start thinking a bit deeper about some of the functional and evolutionary costs and benefits (trade-offs) of both evolving eukaryotic cells and various eukaryotic organelles, as well as how a eukaryotic cell might coordinate the functions of different organelles.
Your instructors will, of course, propose some functional hypotheses for you to consider that address these broader points. Our hypotheses may sometimes come in the form of statements like, "Thing A exists because of rationale B." To be completely honest, however, in many cases, we don't actually know all of the selective pressures that led to the creation or maintenance of certain cellular structures, and the likelihood that one explanation will fit all cases is slim in biology. The causal linkage/relationship implied by the use of terms like "because" should be treated as good hypotheses rather than objective, concrete, undisputed, factual knowledge. We want you to understand these hypotheses and to be able to discuss the ideas presented in class, but we also want you to indulge your own curiosity and to begin thinking critically about these ideas yourself. Try using the Design Challenge rubric to explore some of your ideas. In the following, we will try to seed questions to encourage this activity.
Figure 1. These figures show the major organelles and other cell components of (a) a typical animal cell and (b) a typical eukaryotic plant cell. The plant cell has a cell wall, chloroplasts, plastids, and a central vacuole—structures not found in animal cells. Plant cells do not have lysosomes or centrosomes.
The plasma membrane
Like bacteria and archaea, eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane, a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. The plasma membrane controls the passage of organic molecules, ions, water, and oxygen into and out of the cell. Wastes (such as carbon dioxide and ammonia) also leave the cell by passing through the plasma membrane, usually with some help of protein transporters.
Figure 2. The eukaryotic plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer with proteins and cholesterol embedded in it.
As discussed in the context of bacterial cell membranes, the plasma membranes of eukaryotic cells may also adopt unique conformations. For instance, the plasma membrane of cells that, in multicellular organisms, specialize in absorption are often folded into fingerlike projections called microvilli (singular = microvillus); (see figure below). The "folding" of the membrane into microvilli effectively increases the surface area for absorption while minimally impacting the cytosolic volume. Such cells can be found lining the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food.
An aside: People with celiac disease have an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The immune response damages microvilli. As a consequence, afflicted individuals have an impaired ability to absorb nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition, cramping, and diarrhea.
Figure 3. Microvilli, shown here as they appear on cells lining the small intestine, increase the surface area available for absorption. These microvilli are only found on the area of the plasma membrane that faces the cavity from which substances will be absorbed. Credit: "micrograph", modification of work by Louisa Howard
The cytoplasm refers to the entire region of a cell between the plasma membrane and the nuclear envelope. It is composed of organelles suspended in the gel-like cytosol, the cytoskeleton, and various chemicals (see figure below). Even though the cytoplasm consists of 70 to 80 percent water, it nevertheless has a semisolid consistency. It is crowded in there. Proteins, simple sugars, polysaccharides, amino acids, nucleic acids, fatty acids, ions and many other water-soluble molecules are all competing for space and water.
Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell (see figure below) when viewed through a microscope. The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA. Let’s look at it in more detail.
Figure 4. The nucleus stores chromatin (DNA plus proteins) in a gel-like substance called the nucleoplasm. The nucleolus is a condensed region of chromatin where ribosome synthesis occurs. The boundary of the nucleus is called the nuclear envelope. It consists of two phospholipid bilayers: an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The nuclear membrane is continuous with the endoplasmic reticulum. Nuclear pores allow substances to enter and exit the nucleus.
The nuclear envelope
The nuclear envelope, a structure that constitutes the outermost boundary of the nucleus, is a double-membrane—both the inner and outer membranes of the nuclear envelope are phospholipid bilayers. The nuclear envelope is also punctuated with protein-based pores that control the passage of ions, molecules, and RNA between the nucleoplasm and cytoplasm. The nucleoplasm is the semisolid fluid inside the nucleus where we find the chromatin and the nucleolus, a condensed region of chromatin where ribosome synthesis occurs.
Chromatin and chromosomes
To understand chromatin, it is helpful to first consider chromosomes. Chromosomes are structures within the nucleus that are made up of DNA, the hereditary material. You may remember that in bacteria and archaea, DNA is typically organized into one or more circular chromosome(s). In eukaryotes, chromosomes are linear structures. Every eukaryotic species has a specific number of chromosomes in the nuclei of its cells. In humans, for example, the chromosome number is 23, while in fruit flies, it is 4.
Chromosomes are only clearly visible and distinguishable from one another by visible optical microscopy when the cell is preparing to divide and the DNA is tightly packed by proteins into easily distinguishable shapes. When the cell is in the growth and maintenance phases of its life cycle, numerous proteins are still associated with the nucleic acids, but the DNA strands more closely resemble an unwound, jumbled bunch of threads. The term chromatin is used to describe chromosomes (the protein-DNA complexes) when they are both condensed and decondensed.
Figure 5. (a) This image shows various levels of the organization of chromatin (DNA and protein). (b) This image shows paired chromosomes. Credit (b): modification of work by NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell
Some chromosomes have sections of DNA that encode ribosomal RNA. A darkly staining area within the nucleus called the nucleolus (plural = nucleoli) aggregates the ribosomal RNA with associated proteins to assemble the ribosomal subunits that are then transported out to the cytoplasm through the pores in the nuclear envelope.
Note: possible discussion
Discuss amongst yourselves. Use the Design Challenge rubric to consider the nucleus in more detail. What "problems" does an organelle like the nucleus solve? What are some of the qualities of a nucleus that may be responsible for ensuring its evolutionary success? What are some of the trade-offs of evolving and maintaining a nucleus? (Every benefit has some cost; can you list both?) Remember, there may be some well-established hypotheses (and it is good to mention these), but the point of the exercise here is for you to think critically and to critically discuss these ideas using your collective "smarts".
Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for protein synthesis. When viewed through an electron microscope, ribosomes appear either as clusters (polyribosomes) or single, tiny dots that float freely in the cytoplasm. They may be attached to the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane or the cytoplasmic side of the endoplasmic reticulum and the outer membrane of the nuclear envelope (cartoon of cell above).
Electron microscopy has shown us that ribosomes, which are large complexes of protein and RNA, consist of two subunits, aptly called large and small (figure below). Ribosomes receive their "instructions" for protein synthesis from the nucleus, where the DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA travels to the ribosomes, which translate the code provided by the sequence of the nitrogenous bases in the mRNA into a specific order of amino acids in a protein. This is covered in greater detail in the section covering the process of translation.
Figure 6. Ribosomes are made up of a large subunit (top) and a small subunit (bottom). During protein synthesis, ribosomes assemble amino acids into proteins.
Mitochondria (singular = mitochondrion) are often called the “powerhouses” or “energy factories” of a cell because they are the primary site of metabolic respiration in eukaryotes. Depending on the species and the type of mitochondria found in those cells, the respiratory pathways may be anaerobic or aerobic. By definition, when respiration is aerobic, the terminal electron is oxygen; when respiration is anaerobic, a compound other than oxygen functions as the terminal electron acceptor. In either case, the result of these respiratory processes is the production of ATP via oxidative phosphorylation, hence the use of terms "powerhouse" and/or "energy factory" to describe this organelle. Nearly all mitochondria also possess a small genome that encodes genes whose functions are typically restricted to the mitochondrion.
In some cases, the number of mitochondria per cell is tunable, depending, typically, on energy demand. It is for instance possible muscle cells that are used—that by extension have a higher demand for ATP—may often be found to have a significantly higher number of mitochondria than cells that do not have a high energy load.
The structure of the mitochondria can vary significantly depending on the organism and the state of the cell cycle which one is observing. The typical textbook image, however, depicts mitochondria as oval-shaped organelles with a double inner and outer membrane (see figure below); learn to recognize this generic representation. Both the inner and outer membranes are phospholipid bilayers embedded with proteins that mediate transport across them and catalyze various other biochemical reactions. The inner membrane layer has folds called cristae that increase the surface area into which respiratory chain proteins can be embedded. The region within the cristae is called the mitochondrial matrix and contains—among other things—enzymes of the TCA cycle. During respiration, protons are pumped by respiratory chain complexes from the matrix into a region known as the intermembrane space (between the inner and outer membranes).
Figure 7. This electron micrograph shows a mitochondrion as viewed with a transmission electron microscope. This organelle has an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The inner membrane contains folds, called cristae, which increase its surface area. The space between the two membranes is called the intermembrane space, and the space inside the inner membrane is called the mitochondrial matrix. ATP synthesis takes place on the inner membrane. Credit: modification of work by Matthew Britton; scale-bar data from Matt Russell
Note: possible discussion
Discuss: Processes like glycolysis, lipid biosynthesis, and nucleotide biosynthesis all have compounds that feed into the TCA cycle—some of which occurs in the mitochondria. What are some of the functional challenges associated with coordinating processes that have a common set of molecules if the enzymes are sequestered into different cellular compartments?
Peroxisomes are small, round organelles enclosed by single membranes. These organelles carry out redox reactions that oxidize and break down fatty acids and amino acids. They also help to detoxify many toxins that may enter the body. Many of these redox reactions release hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, which would be damaging to cells; however, when these reactions are confined to peroxisomes, enzymes safely break down the H2O2 into oxygen and water. For example, alcohol is detoxified by peroxisomes in liver cells. Glyoxysomes, which are specialized peroxisomes in plants, are responsible for converting stored fats into sugars.
Vesicles and vacuoles
Vesicles and vacuoles are membrane-bound sacs that function in storage and transport. Other than the fact that vacuoles are somewhat larger than vesicles, there is a very subtle distinction between them: the membranes of vesicles can fuse with either the plasma membrane or other membrane systems within the cell. Additionally, some agents such as enzymes within plant vacuoles break down macromolecules. The membrane of a vacuole does not fuse with the membranes of other cellular components.
Animal cells versus plant cells
At this point, you know that each eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria, peroxisomes, and in some, vacuoles. There are some striking differences between animal and plant cells worth noting. Here is a brief list of differences that we want you to be familiar with and a slightly expanded description below:
- While all eukaryotic cells use microtubule and motor protein the based mechanisms to segregate chromosomes during cell division, the structures used to organize these microtubules differ in plants versus animal and yeast cells. Animal and yeast cells organize and anchor their microtubules into structures called microtubule organizing centers (MTOCs). These structures are composed of structures called centrioles that are composed largely of α-tubulin, β-tubulin, and other proteins. Two centrioles organize into a structure called a centrosome. By contrast, in plants, while microtubules also organize into discrete bundles, there are no conspicuous structures similar to the MTOCs seen in animal and yeast cells. Rather, depending on the organism, it appears that there can be several places where these bundles of microtubules can nucleate from places called acentriolar (without centriole) microtubule organizing centers. A third type of tubulin, γ-tubulin, appears to be implicated, but our knowledge of the precise mechanisms used by plants to organize microtubule spindles is still spotty.
- Animal cells typically have organelles called lysosomes responsible for degradation of biomolecules. Some plant cells contain functionally similar degradative organelles, but there is a debate as to how they should be named. Some plant biologists call these organelles lysosomes while others lump them into the general category of plastids and do not give them a specific name.
- Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts and other specialized plastids, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.
The centrosome is a microtubule-organizing center found near the nuclei of animal cells. It contains a pair of centrioles, two structures that lie perpendicular to eachother (see figure below). Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules.
Figure 8. The centrosome consists of two centrioles that lie at right angles to each other. Each centriole is a cylinder made up of nine triplets of microtubules. Nontubulin proteins (indicated by the green lines) hold the microtubule triplets together.
The centrosome (the organelle where all microtubules originate in animal and yeast) replicates itself before a cell divides, and the centrioles appear to have some role in pulling the duplicated chromosomes to opposite ends of the dividing cell. However, the exact function of the centrioles in cell division remains unclear, as cells that have had their centrosome removed can still divide, and plant cells, which lack centrosomes, are capable of cell division.
Animal cells have another set of organelles not found in plant cells: lysosomes. Colloquially, the lysosomes are sometimes called the cell’s “garbage disposal”. Enzymes within the lysosomes aid the breakdown of proteins, polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and even "worn-out" organelles. These enzymes are active at a much lower pH than that of the cytoplasm. Therefore, the pH within lysosomes is more acidic than the pH of the cytoplasm. In plant cells, many of the same digestive processes take place in vacuoles.
The cell wall
If you examine the diagram above depicting plant and animal cells, you will see in the diagram of a plant cell a structure external to the plasma membrane called the cell wall. The cell wall is a rigid covering that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell. Fungal and protistan cells also have cell walls. While the chief component of bacterial cell walls is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant cell wall is cellulose (see structure below), a polysaccharide made up of glucose subunits.
Figure 9. Cellulose is a long chain of β-glucose molecules connected by a 1-4 linkage. The dashed lines at each end of the figure indicate a series of many more glucose units. The size of the page makes it impossible to portray an entire cellulose molecule.
Chloroplasts are plant cell organelles that carry out photosynthesis. Like the mitochondria, chloroplasts have their own DNA and ribosomes, but chloroplasts have an entirely different function.
Like mitochondria, chloroplasts have outer and inner membranes, but within the space enclosed by a chloroplast’s inner membrane is a set of interconnected and stacked fluid-filled membrane sacs called thylakoids (figure below). Each stack of thylakoids is called a granum (plural = grana). The fluid enclosed by the inner membrane that surrounds the grana is called the stroma.
Figure 10. The chloroplast has an outer membrane, an inner membrane, and membrane structures called thylakoids that are stacked into grana. The space inside the thylakoid membranes is called the thylakoid space. The light harvesting reactions take place in the thylakoid membranes, and the synthesis of sugar takes place in the fluid inside the inner membrane, which is called the stroma. Chloroplasts also have their own genome, which is contained on a single circular chromosome.
The chloroplasts contain a green pigment called chlorophyll, which captures the light energy that drives the reactions of photosynthesis. Like plant cells, photosynthetic protists also have chloroplasts. Some bacteria perform photosynthesis, but their chlorophyll is not relegated to an organelle.
Evolution connection: Endosymbiosis
We have mentioned that both mitochondria and chloroplasts contain DNA and ribosomes. Have you wondered why? Strong evidence points to endosymbiosis as the explanation.
Symbiosis is a relationship in which organisms from two separate species depend on each other for their survival. Endosymbiosis (endo- = “within”) is a mutually beneficial relationship in which one organism lives inside the other. Endosymbiotic relationships abound in nature. For instance, some microbes that live in our digestive tracks produce vitamin K. The relationship between these microbes and us (their hosts) is said to be mutually beneficial or symbiotic. The relationship is beneficial for us because we are unable to synthesize vitamin K; the microbes do it for us instead. The relationship is also beneficial for the microbes because they receive abundant food from the environment of the large intestine, and they are protected both from other organisms and from drying out.
Scientists have long noticed that bacteria, mitochondria, and chloroplasts are similar in size. We also know that bacteria have DNA and ribosomes, just as mitochondria and chloroplasts do. Scientists believe that host cells and bacteria formed an endosymbiotic relationship when the host cells ingested both aerobic and autotrophic bacteria (cyanobacteria) but did not destroy them. Through many millions of years of evolution, these ingested bacteria became more specialized in their functions, with the aerobic bacteria becoming mitochondria and the autotrophic bacteria becoming chloroplasts. There will be more on this later in the reading.
The central vacuole
Previously, we mentioned vacuoles as essential components of plant cells. If you look at the cartoon figure of the plant cell, you will see that it depicts a large central vacuole that occupies most of the area of the cell. The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating the cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions.
Silly vacuole factoid: Have you ever noticed that if you forget to water a plant for a few days, it wilts? That’s because as the water concentration in the soil becomes lower than the water concentration in the plant, water moves out of the central vacuoles and cytoplasm. As the central vacuole shrinks, it leaves the cell wall unsupported. This loss of support to the cell walls of plant cells results in the wilted appearance of the plant.
The central vacuole also supports the expansion of the cell. When the central vacuole holds more water, the cell gets larger without having to invest a lot of energy in synthesizing new cytoplasm.
Plasma membranes enclose and define the borders between the inside and the outside of cells. They are typically composed of dynamic bilayers of phospholipids into which various other lipid soluble molecules and proteins have also been embedded. These bilayers are asymmetric—the outer leaf being different than the inner leaf in lipid composition and in the proteins and carbohydrates that are displayed to either the inside or outside of the cell. Various factors influence the fluidity, permeability, and various other physical properties of the membrane. These include the temperature, the configuration of the fatty acid tails (some kinked by double bonds), the presence of sterols (i.e., cholesterol) embedded in the membrane, and the mosaic nature of the proteins embedded within it. The cell membrane has selectivity; it allows only some substances through while excluding others. In addition, the plasma membrane must, in some cases, be flexible enough to allow certain cells, such as amoebae, to change shape and direction as they move through the environment, hunting smaller, single-celled organisms.
Amoebae Hunting Video
A subgoal in our "build-a-cell" design challenge is to create a boundary that separates the "inside" of the cell from the environment "outside". This boundary needs to serve multiple functions that include:
- Act as a barrier by blocking some compounds from moving in and out of the cell.
- Be selectively permeable in order to transport specific compounds into and out of the cell.
- Receive, sense, and transmit signals from the environment to inside of the cell.
- Project "self" to others by communicating identity to other nearby cells.
Figure 1. The diameter of a typical balloon is 25cm and the thickness of the plastic of the balloon of around 0.25mm. This is a 1000X difference. A typical eukaryotic cell will have a cell diameter of about 50µm and a cell membrane thickness of 5nm. This is a 10,000X difference.
Note: possible discussion
The ratio of membrane thickness compared to the size of an average eukaryotic cell is much greater compared to that of a balloon stretched with air. To think that the boundary between life and nonlife is so small, and seemingly fragile, more so than a balloon, suggests that structurally the membrane must be relatively stable. Discuss why cellular membranes are stable. You will need to pull from information we have already covered in this class.
Fluid mosaic model
The existence of the plasma membrane was identified in the 1890s, and its chemical components were identified in 1915. The principal components identified at that time were lipids and proteins. The first widely accepted model of the plasma membrane’s structure was proposed in 1935 by Hugh Davson and James Danielli; it was based on the “railroad track” appearance of the plasma membrane in early electron micrographs. They theorized that the structure of the plasma membrane resembles a sandwich, with protein being analogous to the bread, and lipids being analogous to the filling. In the 1950s, advances in microscopy, notably transmission electron microscopy (TEM), allowed researchers to see that the core of the plasma membrane consisted of a double, rather than a single, layer. A new model that better explains both the microscopic observations and the function of that plasma membrane was proposed by S.J. Singer and Garth L. Nicolson in 1972.
The explanation proposed by Singer and Nicolson is called the fluid mosaic model. The model has evolved somewhat over time, but it still best accounts for the structure and functions of the plasma membrane as we now understand them. The fluid mosaic model describes the structure of the plasma membrane as a mosaic of components—including phospholipids, cholesterol, proteins, and carbohydrates—that gives the membrane a fluid character. Plasma membranes range from 5 to 10 nm in thickness. For comparison, human red blood cells, visible via light microscopy, are approximately 8 µm wide, or approximately 1,000 times wider than a plasma membrane.
Figure 2. The fluid mosaic model of the plasma membrane describes the plasma membrane as a fluid combination of phospholipids, cholesterol, and proteins. Carbohydrates attached to lipids (glycolipids) and to proteins (glycoproteins) extend from the outward-facing surface of the membrane.
The principal components of a plasma membrane are lipids (phospholipids and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrates. The proportions of proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates in the plasma membrane vary with organism and cell type, but for a typical human cell, proteins account for about 50 percent of the composition by mass, lipids (of all types) account for about 40 percent of the composition by mass, and carbohydrates account for the remaining 10 percent of the composition by mass. However, the concentration of proteins and lipids varies with different cell membranes. For example, myelin, an outgrowth of the membrane of specialized cells, insulates the axons of the peripheral nerves, contains only 18 percent protein and 76 percent lipid. The mitochondrial inner membrane contains 76 percent protein and only 24 percent lipid. The plasma membrane of human red blood cells is 30 percent lipid. Carbohydrates are present only on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane and are attached to proteins, forming glycoproteins, or to lipids, forming glycolipids.
Phospholipids are major constituents of the cell membrane, the outermost layer of cells. Like fats, they are composed of fatty acid chains attached to a polar head group. Specifically, there are two fatty acid tails and a phosphate group as the polar head group. The phospholipid is an amphipathic molecule, meaning it has a hydrophobic part and a hydrophilic part. The fatty acid chains are hydrophobic and cannot interact with water, whereas the phosphate-containing head group is hydrophilic and interacts with water.
Make sure to note in Figure 3 that the phosphate group has an R group linked to one of the oxygen atoms. R is a variable commonly used in these types of diagrams to indicate that some other atom or molecule is bound at that position. That part of the molecule can be different in different phospholipids—and will impart some different chemistry to the whole molecule. At the moment, however, you are responsible for being able to recognize this type of molecule (no matter what the R group is) because of the common core elements—the glycerol backbone, the phosphate group, and the two hydrocarbon tails.
Figure 3. A phospholipid is a molecule with two fatty acids and a modified phosphate group attached to a glycerol backbone. The phosphate may be modified by the addition of charged or polar chemical groups. Several chemical R groups may modify the phosphate. Choline, serine, and ethanolamine are shown here. These attach to the phosphate group at the position labeled R via their hydroxyl groups.
Attribution: Marc T. Facciotti (own work)
A phospholipid bilayer forms as the basic structure of the cell membrane. The fatty acid tails of phospholipids face inside, away from water, whereas the phosphate group faces outside, hydrogen bonding with water. Phospholipids are responsible for the dynamic nature of the plasma membrane.
Figure 4. In the presence of water, some phospholipids will spontaneously arrange themselves into a micelle. The lipids will be arranged such that their polar groups will be on the outside of the micelle, and the nonpolar tails will be on the inside. A lipid bilayer can also form, a two layered sheet only a few nanometers thick. The lipid bilayer consists of two layers of phospholipids organized in a way that all the hydrophobic tails align side by side in the center of the bilayer and are surrounded by the hydrophilic head groups.
Source: Created by Erin Easlon (own work)
Note: possible discussion
Above it says that if you were to take some pure phospholipids and drop them into water that some if it would spontaneously (on its own) form into micelles. This sounds a lot like something that could be described by an energy story. Go back to the energy story rubric and try to start creating an energy story for this process—I expect that the steps involving the description of energy might be difficult at this point (we'll come back to that later) but you should be able to do at least the first three steps. You can constructively critique (politely) each other's work to create an optimized story.
Note: possible discussion
Note that the phospholipid depicted above has an R group linked to the phosphate group. Recall that this designation is generic—these can be different than the R groups on amino acids. What might be a benefit/purpose of "functionalizing" or "decorating" different lipids with different R groups? Think of the functional requirements for membranes stipulated above.
Proteins make up the second major component of plasma membranes. Integral membrane proteins are, as their name suggests, integrated completely into the membrane structure, and their hydrophobic membrane-spanning regions interact with the hydrophobic region of the the phospholipid bilayer. Single-pass integral membrane proteins usually have a hydrophobic transmembrane segment that consists of 20–25 amino acids. Some span only part of the membrane—associating with a single layer—while others stretch from one side of the membrane to the other, and are exposed on either side. This type of protein has a hydrophilic region or regions, and one or several mildly hydrophobic regions. This arrangement of regions of the protein tends to orient the protein alongside the phospholipids, with the hydrophobic region of the protein adjacent to the tails of the phospholipids and the hydrophilic region or regions of the protein protruding from the membrane and in contact with the cytosol or extracellular fluid.
Peripheral proteins are found on either the exterior or interior surfaces of membranes; and weakly or temporarily associated with the membranes. They can interact with either integral membrane proteins or simply interact weakly with the phospholipids within the membrane.
Figure 5. Integral membranes proteins may have one or more α-helices (pink cylinders) that span the membrane (examples 1 and 2), or they may have β-sheets (blue rectangles) that span the membrane (example 3). (credit: “Foobar”/Wikimedia Commons)
Carbohydrates are the third major component of plasma membranes. They are always found on the exterior surface of cells and are bound either to proteins (forming glycoproteins) or to lipids (forming glycolipids). These carbohydrate chains may consist of 2–60 monosaccharide units and can be either straight or branched. Along with peripheral proteins, carbohydrates form specialized sites on the cell surface that allow cells to recognize each other (one of the core functional requirements noted above in "cellular membranes").
The mosaic characteristic of the membrane, described in the fluid mosaic model, helps to illustrate its nature. The integral proteins and lipids exist in the membrane as separate molecules and they "float" in the membrane, moving somewhat with respect to one another. The membrane is not like a balloon, however, in that can expand and contract dramatically; rather, it is fairly rigid and can burst if penetrated or if a cell takes in too much water. However, because of its mosaic nature, a very fine needle can easily penetrate a plasma membrane without causing it to burst, and the membrane will flow and self-seal when the needle is extracted.
The mosaic characteristics of the membrane explain some but not all of its fluidity. There are two other factors that help maintain this fluid characteristic. One factor is the nature of the phospholipids themselves. In their saturated form, the fatty acids in phospholipid tails are saturated with hydrogen atoms. There are no double bonds between adjacent carbon atoms. This results in tails that are relatively straight. By contrast, unsaturated fatty acids do not have a full complement of hydrogen atoms on their fatty acid tails, and therefore contain some double bonds between adjacent carbon atoms; a double bond results in a bend in the string of carbons of approximately 30 degrees.
Figure 6. Any given cell membrane will be composed of a combination of saturated and unsaturated phospholipids. The ratio of the two will influence the permeability and fluidity of the membrane. A membrane composed of completely saturated lipids will be dense and less fluid, and a membrane composed of completely unsaturated lipids will be very loose and very fluid.
Note: possible discussion
Organisms can be found living in extreme temperature conditions. Both in extreme cold or extreme heat. What types of differences would you expect to see in the lipid composition of organisms that live at these extremes?
Saturated fatty acids, with straight tails, are compressed by decreasing temperatures, and they will press in on each other, making a dense and fairly rigid membrane. When unsaturated fatty acids are compressed, the “kinked” tails elbow adjacent phospholipid molecules away, maintaining some space between the phospholipid molecules. This “elbow room” helps to maintain fluidity in the membrane at temperatures at which membranes with high concentrations of saturated fatty acid tails would “freeze” or solidify. The relative fluidity of the membrane is particularly important in a cold environment. Many organisms (fish are one example) are capable of adapting to cold environments by changing the proportion of unsaturated fatty acids in their membranes in response to the lowering of the temperature.
Animals have an additional membrane constituent that assists in maintaining fluidity. Cholesterol, which lies alongside the phospholipids in the membrane, tends to dampen the effects of temperature on the membrane. Thus, this lipid functions as a "fluidity buffer", preventing lower temperatures from inhibiting fluidity and preventing increased temperatures from increasing fluidity too much. Thus, cholesterol extends, in both directions, the range of temperature in which the membrane is appropriately fluid and consequently functional. Cholesterol also serves other functions, such as organizing clusters of transmembrane proteins into lipid rafts.
Figure 7. Cholesterol fits between the phospholipid groups within the membrane.
Review of the components of the membrane
|The components and functions of the plasma membrane|
|Phospholipid||Main fabric of the membrane|
|Cholesterol||Between phospholipids and between the two phospholipid layers of animal cells|
|Integral proteins (e.g., integrins)||Embedded within the phospholipid layer(s); may or may not penetrate through both layers|
|Peripheral proteins||On the inner or outer surface of the phospholipid bilayer; not embedded within the phospholipids|
|Carbohydrates (components of glycoproteins and glycolipids)||Generally attached to proteins on the outside membrane layer|
Design challenge problem and subproblems
General Problem: The cell membrane must simultaneously act as a barrier between "IN" and "OUT" and control specifically which substances enter and leave the cell and how quickly and efficiently they do so.
Subproblems: The chemical properties of molecules that must enter and leave the cell are highly variable. Some subproblems associated with this are: (a) Large and small molecules or collections of molecules must be able to pass across the membrane. (b) Both hydrophobic and hydrophilic substances must have access to transport. (c) Substances must be able to cross the membrane with and against concentration gradients. (d) Some molecules look very similar (e.g. Na+ and K+) but transport mechanisms must still be able to distinguish between them.
Energy story perspective
Transport across a membrane can be considered from an energy story perspective; it is a process after all. For instance, at the beginning of the process a generic substance X may be either on the inside or outside of the cell. At the end of the process, the substance will be on the opposite side from which it started.
e.g. X(in) ---> X(out),
where in and out refer to inside the cell and outside the cell, respectively.
At the beginning the matter in the system might be a very complicated collection of molecules inside and outside of the cell but with one molecule of X more inside the cell than out. At the end, there is one more molecule of X on the outside of the cell and one less on the inside. The energy in the system at the beginning is stored largely in the molecular structures and their motions and in electrical and chemical concentration imbalances across the cell membrane. The transport of X out of the cell will not change the energies of the molecular structures significantly but it will change the energy associated with the imbalance of concentration and or charge across the membrane. That is the transport will, like all other reactions, be either exergonic or endergonic. Finally, some mechanism or sets of mechanisms of transport will need to be described.
One of the great wonders of the cell membrane is its ability to regulate the concentration of substances inside the cell. These substances include: ions such as Ca2+, Na+, K+, and Cl–; nutrients including sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids; and waste products, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), which must leave the cell.
The membrane’s lipid bilayer structure provides the first level of control. The phospholipids are tightly packed, and the membrane has a hydrophobic interior. This structure alone creates what is known as a selectively permeable barrier, one that only allows substances meeting certain physical criteria to pass through it. In the case of the cell membrane, only relatively small, nonpolar materials can move through the lipid bilayer at biologically relevant rates (remember, the lipid tails of the membrane are nonpolar).
Selective permeability of the cell membrane refers to its ability to differentiate between different types of molecules, only allowing some molecules through while blocking others. Some of this selective property stems from the intrinsic diffusion rates for different molecules across a membrane. A second factor affecting the relative rates of movement of various substances across a biological membrane is activity of various protein-based membrane transporters, both passive and active, that will be discussed in more detail in subsequent sections. First, we take on the notion of intrinsic rates of diffusion across the membrane.
The fact that different substances might cross a biological membrane at different rates should be relatively intuitive. There are differences in the mosaic composition of membranes in biology and differences in the sizes, flexibility, and chemical properties of molecules so it stands to reason that the permeability rates vary. It is a complicated landscape. The permeability of a substance across a biological membrane can be measured experimentally and the rate of movement across a membrane can be reported in what are known as membrane permeability coefficients.
Membrane permeability coefficients
Below, a variety of compounds are plotted with respect to their membrane permeability coefficients (MPC) as measured against a simple biochemical approximation of a real biological membrane. The reported permeability coefficient for this system is the rate at which simple diffusion through a membrane occurs and is reported in units of centimeters per second (cm/s). The permeability coefficient is proportional to the partition coefficient and is inversely proportional to the membrane thickness.
It is important that you are able to read and interpret the diagram below. The larger the coefficient, the more permeable the membrane is to the solute. For example, hexanoic acid is very permeable, a MPC of 0.9; acetic acid, water, and ethanol have MPCs between 0.01 and 0.001, and they are less permeable than hexanoic acid. Where as ions, such as sodium (Na+), have an MPC of 10-12, and cross the membrane at a comparatively slow rate.
While there are certain trends or chemical properties that can be roughly associated with different compound permeability (small thing go through "fast", big things "slowly", charged things not at all etc.), we caution against over-generalizing. The molecular determinants of membrane permeability are complicated and involve numerous factors including: the specific composition of the membrane, temperature, ionic composition, hydration; the chemical properties of the solute; the potential chemical interactions between the solute in solution and in the membrane; the dielectric properties of materials; and the energy trade-offs associated with moving substances into and out of various environments. So, in this class, rather than try to apply "rules" and try to develop too many arbitrary "cut-offs", we will strive to develop a general sense of some properties that can influence permeability and leave the assignment of absolute permeability to experimentally reported rates. In addition, we will also try to minimize the use of vocabulary that depends on a frame of reference. For instance, saying that compound A diffuses "quickly" or "slowly" across a bilayer only means something if the terms "quickly" or "slowly" are numerically defined or the biological context is understood.
Energetics of transport
All substances that move through the membrane do so by one of two general methods, which are categorized based on whether or not the transport process is exergonic or endergonic. Passive transport is the exergonic movement of substances across the membrane. In contrast, active transport is the endergonic movement of substances across the membrane that is coupled to an exergonic reaction.
Passive transport does not require the cell to expend energy. In passive transport, substances move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration, down their concentration gradient . Depending on the chemical nature of the substance, different processes may be associated with passive transport.
Diffusion is a passive process of transport. A single substance tends to move from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration until the concentration is equal across a space. You are familiar with diffusion of substances through the air. For example, think about someone opening a bottle of ammonia in a room filled with people. The ammonia gas is at its highest concentration in the bottle; its lowest concentration is at the edges of the room. The ammonia vapor will diffuse, or spread away, from the bottle; gradually, more and more people will smell the ammonia as it spreads. Materials move within the cell’s cytosol by diffusion, and certain materials move through the plasma membrane by diffusion.
Factors that affect diffusion
If unconstrained, molecules will move through and explore space randomly at a rate that depends on their size, their shape, their environment, and their thermal energy. This type of movement underlies the diffusive movement of molecules through whatever medium they are in. The absence of a concentration gradient does not mean that this movement will stop, just that there may be no net movement of the number of molecules from one area to another, a condition known as dynamic equilibrium.
Factors influencing diffusion include:
- Extent of the concentration gradient: The greater the difference in concentration, the more rapid the diffusion. The closer the distribution of the material gets to equilibrium, the slower the rate of diffusion becomes.
- Shape, size and mass of the molecules diffusing: Large and heavier molecules move more slowly; therefore, they diffuse more slowly. The reverse is typically true for smaller, lighter molecules.
- Temperature: Higher temperatures increase the energy and therefore the movement of the molecules, increasing the rate of diffusion. Lower temperatures decrease the energy of the molecules, thus decreasing the rate of diffusion.
- Solvent density: As the density of a solvent increases, the rate of diffusion decreases. The molecules slow down because they have a more difficult time getting through the denser medium. If the medium is less dense, rates of diffusion increase. Since cells primarily use diffusion to move materials within the cytoplasm, any increase in the cytoplasm’s density will decrease the rate at which materials move in the cytoplasm.
- Solubility: As discussed earlier, nonpolar or lipid-soluble materials pass through plasma membranes more easily than polar materials, allowing a faster rate of diffusion.
- Surface area and thickness of the plasma membrane: Increased surface area increases the rate of diffusion, whereas a thicker membrane reduces it.
- Distance traveled: The greater the distance that a substance must travel, the slower the rate of diffusion. This places an upper limitation on cell size. A large, spherical cell will die because nutrients or waste cannot reach or leave the center of the cell, respectively. Therefore, cells must either be small in size, as in the case of many prokaryotes, or be flattened, as with many single-celled eukaryotes.
In facilitated transport, also called facilitated diffusion, materials diffuse across the plasma membrane with the help of membrane proteins. A concentration gradient exists that allows these materials to diffuse into or out of the cell without expending cellular energy. In the case that the materials are ions or polar molecules (compounds that are repelled by the hydrophobic parts of the cell membrane), facilitated transport proteins help shield these materials from the repulsive force of the membrane, allowing them to diffuse into the cell.
Note: possible discussion
Compare and contrast passive diffusion and facilitated diffusion.
The integral proteins involved in facilitated transport are collectively referred to as transport proteins, and they function as either channels for the material or carriers. In both cases, they are transmembrane proteins. Different channel proteins have different transport properties. Some have evolved to have very high specificity for the substance that is being transported while others transport a variety of molecules sharing some common characteristic(s). The interior "passageway" of channel proteins have evolved to provide a low energetic barrier for transport of substances across the membrane through the complementary arrangement of amino acid functional groups (of both backbone and side-chains). Passage through the channel allows polar compounds to avoid the nonpolar central layer of the plasma membrane that would otherwise slow or prevent their entry into the cell. While at any one time significant amounts of water crosses the membrane both in and out, the rate of individual water molecule transport may not be fast enough to adapt to changing environmental conditions. For such cases Nature has evolved a special class of membrane proteins called aquaporins that allow water to pass through the membrane at a very high rate.
Channel proteins are either open at all times or they are “gated.” The latter controls the opening of the channel. Various mechanisms may be involved in the gating mechanism. For instance, the attachment of a specific ion or small molecule to the channel protein may trigger opening. Changes in local membrane "stress" or changes in voltage across the membrane may also be triggers to open or close a channel.
Different organisms and tissues in multicellular species express different sets of channel proteins in their membranes depending on the environments they live in or specialized function they play in an organisms. This provides each type of cell with a unique membrane permeability profile that is evolved to complement its "needs" (note the anthropomorphism). For example, in some tissues, sodium and chloride ions pass freely through open channels, whereas in other tissues a gate must be opened to allow passage. This occurs in the kidney, where both forms of channels are found in different parts of the renal tubules. Cells involved in the transmission of electrical impulses, such as nerve and muscle cells, have gated channels for sodium, potassium, and calcium in their membranes. Opening and closing of these channels changes the relative concentrations on opposing sides of the membrane of these ions, resulting a change in electrical potential across the membrane that lead to message propagation in the case of nerve cells or in muscle contraction in the case of muscle cells.
Another type of protein embedded in the plasma membrane is a carrier protein. This aptly named protein binds a substance and, in doing so, triggers a change of its own shape, moving the bound molecule from the outside of the cell to its interior; depending on the gradient, the material may move in the opposite direction. Carrier proteins are typically specific for a single substance. This selectivity adds to the overall selectivity of the plasma membrane. The molecular-scale mechanism of function for these proteins remains poorly understood.
Carrier protein play an important role in the function of kidneys. Glucose, water, salts, ions, and amino acids needed by the body are filtered in one part of the kidney. This filtrate, which includes glucose, is then reabsorbed in another part of the kidney with the help of carrier proteins. Because there are only a finite number of carrier proteins for glucose, if more glucose is present in the filtrate than the proteins can handle, the excess is not reabsorbed and it is excreted from the body in the urine. In a diabetic individual, this is described as “spilling glucose into the urine.” A different group of carrier proteins called glucose transport proteins, or GLUTs, are involved in transporting glucose and other hexose sugars through plasma membranes within the body.
Channel and carrier proteins transport material at different rates. Channel proteins transport much more quickly than do carrier proteins. Channel proteins facilitate diffusion at a rate of tens of millions of molecules per second, whereas carrier proteins work at a rate of a thousand to a million molecules per second.
Active transport mechanisms require the use of the cell’s energy, usually in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). If a substance must move into the cell against its concentration gradient—that is, if the concentration of the substance inside the cell is greater than its concentration in the extracellular fluid (and vice versa)—the cell must use energy to move the substance. Some active transport mechanisms move small-molecular weight materials, such as ions, through the membrane. Other mechanisms transport much larger molecules.
Moving against a gradient
To move substances against a concentration or electrochemical gradient, the cell must use energy. This energy is harvested from ATP generated through the cell’s metabolism. Active transport mechanisms, collectively called pumps, work against electrochemical gradients. Small substances constantly pass through plasma membranes. Active transport maintains concentrations of ions and other substances needed by living cells in the face of these passive movements. Much of a cell’s supply of metabolic energy may be spent maintaining these processes. (Most of a red blood cell’s metabolic energy is used to maintain the imbalance between exterior and interior sodium and potassium levels required by the cell.) Because active transport mechanisms depend on a cell’s metabolism for energy, they are sensitive to many metabolic poisons that interfere with the supply of ATP.
Two mechanisms exist for the transport of small-molecular weight material and small molecules. Primary active transport moves ions across a membrane and creates a difference in charge across that membrane, which is directly dependent on ATP. Secondary active transport describes the movement of material that is due to the electrochemical gradient established by primary active transport that does not directly require ATP.
Carrier proteins for active transport
An important membrane adaption for active transport is the presence of specific carrier proteins or pumps to facilitate movement: there are three types of these proteins or transporters. A uniporter carries one specific ion or molecule. A symporter carries two different ions or molecules, both in the same direction. An antiporter also carries two different ions or molecules, but in different directions. All of these transporters can also transport small, uncharged organic molecules like glucose. These three types of carrier proteins are also found in facilitated diffusion, but they do not require ATP to work in that process. Some examples of pumps for active transport are Na+-K+ ATPase, which carries sodium and potassium ions, and H+-K+ ATPase, which carries hydrogen and potassium ions. Both of these are antiporter carrier proteins. Two other carrier proteins are Ca2+ATPase and H+ ATPase, which carry only calcium and only hydrogen ions, respectively. Both are pumps.
Primary active transport
In primary active transport, the energy is often - though not exclusively - derived directly from the hydrolysis of ATP. Often, primary active transport, such as that shown below, which functions to transport sodium and potassium ions allows secondary active transport to occur (discussed in the section below). The second transport method is still considered active because it depends on the use of energy from the primary transport.
One of the most important pumps in animal cells is the sodium-potassium pump (Na+-K+ ATPase), which maintains the electrochemical gradient (and the correct concentrations of Na+and K+) in living cells. The sodium-potassium pump moves K+ into the cell while moving Na+ out at the same time, at a ratio of three Na+ for every two K+ ions moved in. The Na+-K+ATPase exists in two forms depending on its orientation to the interior or exterior of the cell and its affinity for either sodium or potassium ions. The process consists of the following six steps.
- With the enzyme oriented towards the interior of the cell, the carrier has a high affinity for sodium ions. Three ions bind to the protein.
- ATP is hydrolyzed by the protein carrier and a low-energy phosphate group attaches to it.
- As a result, the carrier changes shape and re-orients itself towards the exterior of the membrane. The protein’s affinity for sodium decreases and the three sodium ions leave the carrier.
- The shape change increases the carrier’s affinity for potassium ions, and two such ions attach to the protein. Subsequently, the low-energy phosphate group detaches from the carrier.
- With the phosphate group removed and potassium ions attached, the carrier protein repositions itself towards the interior of the cell.
- The carrier protein, in its new configuration, has a decreased affinity for potassium, and the two ions are released into the cytoplasm. The protein now has a higher affinity for sodium ions, and the process starts again.
Several things have happened as a result of this process. At this point, there are more sodium ions outside of the cell than inside and more potassium ions inside than out. For every three ions of sodium that move out, two ions of potassium move in. This results in the interior being slightly more negative relative to the exterior. This difference in charge is important in creating the conditions necessary for the secondary process. The sodium-potassium pump is, therefore, an electrogenic pump (a pump that creates a charge imbalance), creating an electrical imbalance across the membrane and contributing to the membrane potential.
Link to learning
Visit the site to see a simulation of active transport in a sodium-potassium ATPase.
Secondary active transport (co-transport)
Secondary active transport brings sodium ions, and possibly other compounds, into the cell. As sodium ion concentrations build outside of the plasma membrane because of the action of the primary active transport process, an electrochemical gradient is created. If a channel protein exists and is open, the sodium ions will be pulled through the membrane. This movement is used to transport other substances that can attach themselves to the transport protein through the membrane. Many amino acids, as well as glucose, enter a cell this way. This secondary process is also used to store high energy hydrogen ions in the mitochondria of plant and animal cells for the production of ATP. The potential energy that accumulates in the stored hydrogen ions is translated into kinetic energy as the ions surge through the channel protein ATP synthase, and that energy is used to convert ADP into ATP.
Osmosis is the movement of water through a semipermeable membrane according to the concentration gradient of water across the membrane, which is inversely proportional to the concentration of solutes. While diffusion transports material across membranes and within cells, osmosis transports only water across a membrane and the membrane limits the diffusion of solutes in the water. Not surprisingly, the aquaporins that facilitate water movement play a large role in osmosis, most prominently in red blood cells and the membranes of kidney tubules.
Osmosis is a special case of diffusion. Water, like other substances, moves from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration. An obvious question is what makes water move at all? Imagine a beaker with a semipermeable membrane separating the two sides or halves. On both sides of the membrane the water level is the same, but there are different concentrations of a dissolved substance, or solute, that cannot cross the membrane (otherwise the concentrations on each side would be balanced by the solute crossing the membrane). If the volume of the solution on both sides of the membrane is the same, but the concentrations of solute are different, then there are different amounts of water, the solvent, on either side of the membrane.
To illustrate this, imagine two full glasses of water. One has a single teaspoon of sugar in it, whereas the second one contains one-quarter cup of sugar. If the total volume of the solutions in both cups is the same, which cup contains more water? Because the large amount of sugar in the second cup takes up much more space than the teaspoon of sugar in the first cup, the first cup has more water in it.
Returning to the beaker example, recall that it has a mixture of solutes on either side of the membrane. A principle of diffusion is that the molecules move around and will spread evenly throughout the medium if they can. However, only the material capable of getting through the membrane will diffuse through it. In this example, the solute cannot diffuse through the membrane, but the water can. Water has a concentration gradient in this system. Thus, water will diffuse down its concentration gradient, crossing the membrane to the side where it is less concentrated. This diffusion of water through the membrane—osmosis—will continue until the concentration gradient of water goes to zero or until the hydrostatic pressure of the water balances the osmotic pressure. Osmosis proceeds constantly in living systems.
Tonicity describes how an extracellular solution can change the volume of a cell by affecting osmosis. A solution's tonicity often directly correlates with the osmolarity of the solution. Osmolarity describes the total solute concentration of the solution. A solution with low osmolarity has a greater number of water molecules relative to the number of solute particles; a solution with high osmolarity has fewer water molecules with respect to solute particles. In a situation in which solutions of two different osmolarities are separated by a membrane permeable to water, though not to the solute, water will move from the side of the membrane with lower osmolarity (and more water) to the side with higher osmolarity (and less water). This effect makes sense if you remember that the solute cannot move across the membrane, and thus the only component in the system that can move—the water—moves along its own concentration gradient. An important distinction that concerns living systems is that osmolarity measures the number of particles (which may be molecules) in a solution. Therefore, a solution that is cloudy with cells may have a lower osmolarity than a solution that is clear if the second solution contains more dissolved molecules than there are cells.
Three terms—hypotonic, isotonic, and hypertonic—are used to relate the osmolarity of a cell to the osmolarity of the extracellular fluid that contains the cells. In a hypotonic situation, the extracellular fluid has lower osmolarity than the fluid inside the cell, and water enters the cell (in living systems, the point of reference is always the cytoplasm, so the prefix hypo- means that the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes, or a lower osmolarity, than the cell cytoplasm). It also means that the extracellular fluid has a higher concentration of water in the solution than does the cell. In this situation, water will follow its concentration gradient and enter the cell.
As for a hypertonic solution, the prefix hyper- refers to the extracellular fluid having a higher osmolarity than the cell’s cytoplasm; therefore, the fluid contains less water than the cell does. Because the cell has a relatively higher concentration of water, water will leave the cell.
In an isotonic solution, the extracellular fluid has the same osmolarity as the cell. If the osmolarity of the cell matches that of the extracellular fluid, there will be no net movement of water into or out of the cell, although water will still move in and out. Blood cells and plant cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions take on characteristic appearances.
A doctor injects a patient with what the doctor thinks is an isotonic saline solution. The patient dies, and an autopsy reveals that many red blood cells have been destroyed. Do you think the solution the doctor injected was really isotonic?
Link to learning
For a video illustrating the process of diffusion in solutions, visit this site.
Tonicity in living systems
In a hypotonic environment, water enters a cell, and the cell swells. In an isotonic condition, the relative concentrations of solute and solvent are equal on both sides of the membrane. There is no net water movement; therefore, there is no change in the size of the cell. In a hypertonic solution, water leaves a cell and the cell shrinks. If either the hypo- or hyper- condition goes to excess, the cell’s functions become compromised, and the cell may be destroyed.
A red blood cell will burst, or lyse, when it swells beyond the plasma membrane’s capability to expand. Remember, the membrane resembles a mosaic, with discrete spaces between the molecules composing it. If the cell swells, and the spaces between the lipids and proteins become too large, and the cell will break apart.
In contrast, when excessive amounts of water leave a red blood cell, the cell shrinks, or crenates. This has the effect of concentrating the solutes left in the cell, making the cytosol denser and interfering with diffusion within the cell. The cell’s ability to function will be compromised and may also result in the death of the cell.
Various living things have ways of controlling the effects of osmosis—a mechanism called osmoregulation. Some organisms, such as plants, fungi, bacteria, and some protists, have cell walls that surround the plasma membrane and prevent cell lysis in a hypotonic solution. The plasma membrane can only expand to the limit of the cell wall, so the cell will not lyse. In fact, the cytoplasm in plants is always slightly hypertonic to the cellular environment, and water will always enter a cell if water is available. This inflow of water produces turgor pressure, which stiffens the cell walls of the plant. In nonwoody plants, turgor pressure supports the plant. Conversely, if the plant is not watered, the extracellular fluid will become hypertonic, causing water to leave the cell. In this condition, the cell does not shrink because the cell wall is not flexible. However, the cell membrane detaches from the wall and constricts the cytoplasm. This is called plasmolysis. Plants lose turgor pressure in this condition and wilt.
Tonicity is a concern for all living things. For example, paramecia and amoebas, which are protists that lack cell walls, have contractile vacuoles. This vesicle collects excess water from the cell and pumps it out, keeping the cell from bursting as it takes on water from its environment.
Figure 12. A paramecium’s contractile vacuole, here visualized using bright field light microscopy at 480x magnification, continuously pumps water out of the organism’s body to keep it from bursting in a hypotonic medium. (credit: modification of work by NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Many marine invertebrates have internal salt levels matched to their environments, making them isotonic with the water in which they live. Fish, however, must spend approximately five percent of their metabolic energy maintaining osmotic homeostasis. Freshwater fish live in an environment that is hypotonic to their cells. These fish actively take in salt through their gills and excrete diluted urine to rid themselves of excess water. Saltwater fish live in the reverse environment, which is hypertonic to their cells, and they secrete salt through their gills and excrete highly concentrated urine.
In vertebrates, the kidneys regulate the amount of water in the body. Osmoreceptors are specialized cells in the brain that monitor the concentration of solutes in the blood. If the levels of solutes increase beyond a certain range, a hormone is released that retards water loss through the kidney and dilutes the blood to safer levels. Animals also have high concentrations of albumin, which is produced by the liver, in their blood. This protein is too large to pass easily through plasma membranes and is a major factor in controlling the osmotic pressures applied to tissues.