Cell Membranes

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain the structure and function of cell membranes

Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane (Figure 1), a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins, that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. A phospholipid is a lipid molecule with two fatty acid chains and a phosphate-containing group. 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. We will cover the plasma membrane in more detail in a later unit but here is an overview of this cell surface structure.

The plasma membrane is composed of a phospholipid bilayer. In the bilayer, the two long hydrophobic tails of phospholipids face toward the center, and the hydrophilic head group faces the exterior. Integral membrane proteins and protein channels span the entire bilayer. Protein channels have a pore in the middle. Peripheral membrane proteins sit on the surface of the phospholipids, and are associated with the phospholipid head groups. On the exterior side of the membrane, carbohydrates are attached to certain proteins and lipids. Filaments of the cytoskeleton line the interior of the membrane.

Figure 1. The eukaryotic plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer with proteins and cholesterol embedded in it.

The plasma membranes of cells that specialize in absorption are folded into fingerlike projections called microvilli (singular = microvillus); (Figure 2). Such cells are typically found lining the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food. This is an excellent example of form following function. People with celiac disease have an immune response to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The immune response damages microvilli, and thus, afflicted individuals cannot absorb nutrients. This leads to malnutrition, cramping, and diarrhea. Patients suffering from celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet.

The left part of this figure is a transmission electron micrograph of microvilli, which appear as long, slender stalks extending from the plasma membrane. The right side illustrates cells containing microvilli. The microvilli cover the surface of the cell facing the interior of the small intestine.

Figure 2. 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)

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