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Biology LibreTexts

6.11: Using the energy stored in membrane gradients

The energy captured by organisms is used to drive a number of processes in addition to synthesis reactions. For example, we have already seen that ATP synthases can act as pumps (ATP-driven transporters), coupling the favorable ATP hydrolysis reaction to the movement of molecules against their concentration gradients. The resulting gradient is a form of stored (potential) energy. This energy can be used to move other molecules, that is molecules that are not moved directly by a ATP-driven transporter. Such processes involve what is known as coupled transport182. They rely on membrane-bound proteins that enable a molecule to move down its concentration gradient. In contrast to simple carriers and channels, however, this thermodynamically favorable movement is physically coupled to the movement of a second molecule across the membrane and against its concentration gradient. When the two transported molecules move in the same direction, the transporter is known as a symporter, when they move in opposite directions, it is known as an antiporter. Which direction(s) the molecules move will be determined by the relative sizes of the concentration gradients of the two types of molecules moved. There is no inherent directionality associated with the transporter itself - the net movement of molecules reflects the relative concentration gradients of the molecules that the transporter can productively bind. What is important here is that energy stored in the concentration gradient of one molecule can be used to drive the movement of a second type of molecule against its concentration gradient. In mammalian systems, it is common to have Na+, K+, and Ca2+ gradients across the plasma membrane, and these are used to transport molecules into and out of cells. Of course, the presence of these gradients implies that there are ion-specific pumps that couple an energetically favorable reaction, typically ATP hydrolysis, to an energetically unfavorable reaction, the movement of an ion against its concentration gradient. Without these pumps, and the chemical reactions that drive them, the membrane battery would quickly run down. Many of the immediate effects of death are due to the loss of membrane gradients and much of the energy needs of cells (and organisms) involves running such pumps.

References

182 Structural features of the uniporter/symporter/antiporter superfamily: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2143070/

Contributors

  • Michael W. Klymkowsky (University of Colorado Boulder) and Melanie M. Cooper (Michigan State University) with significant contributions by Emina Begovic & some editorial assistance of Rebecca Klymkowsky.