The Cytoskeleton, Flagella and Cilia, and the Plasma Membrane

Learning Outcomes

  • Demonstrate familiarity with various components of the cytoskeleton
  • Describe the structure and functions of flagella and cilia
  • Explain the structure and function of cell membranes

The Cytoskeleton

If you were to remove all the organelles from a cell, would the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm be the only components left? No. Within the cytoplasm, there would still be ions and organic molecules, plus a network of protein fibers that helps to maintain the shape of the cell, secures certain organelles in specific positions, allows cytoplasm and vesicles to move within the cell, and enables unicellular organisms to move independently. Collectively, this network of protein fibers is known as the cytoskeleton. There are three types of fibers within the cytoskeleton: microfilaments, also known as actin filaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules (Figure 1).

Microfilaments line the inside of the plasma membrane, whereas microfilaments radiate out from the center of the cell. Intermediate filaments form a network throughout the cell that holds organelles in place.

Figure 1. Microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules compose a cell’s cytoskeleton.

Microfilaments are the thinnest of the cytoskeletal fibers and function in moving cellular components, for example, during cell division. They also maintain the structure of microvilli, the extensive folding of the plasma membrane found in cells dedicated to absorption. These components are also common in muscle cells and are responsible for muscle cell contraction.

Intermediate filaments are of intermediate diameter and have structural functions, such as maintaining the shape of the cell and anchoring organelles. Keratin, the compound that strengthens hair and nails, forms one type of intermediate filament.

Microtubules are the thickest of the cytoskeletal fibers. These are hollow tubes that can dissolve and reform quickly. Microtubules guide organelle movement and are the structures that pull chromosomes to their poles during cell division. They are also the structural components of flagella and cilia. In cilia and flagella, the microtubules are organized as a circle of nine double microtubules on the outside and two microtubules in the center.

The centrosome is a region near the nucleus of animal cells that functions as a microtubule-organizing center. It contains a pair of centrioles, two structures that lie perpendicular to each other. Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules. The centrosome replicates itself before a cell divides, and the centrioles play a role in pulling the duplicated chromosomes to opposite ends of the dividing cell. However, the exact function of the centrioles in cell division is not clear, since cells that have the centrioles removed can still divide, and plant cells, which lack centrioles, are capable of cell division.

Flagella and Cilia

Flagella (singular = flagellum) are long, hair-like structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell, (for example, sperm, Euglena). When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, they are many in number and extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells (such as paramecium) or move substances along the outer surface of the cell (for example, the cilia of cells lining the Fallopian tubes that move the ovum toward the uterus, or cilia lining the cells of the respiratory tract that move particulate matter toward the throat that mucus has trapped).

The Plasma Membrane

Like prokaryotes, eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane (Figure 2) made up of a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. A phospholipid is a lipid molecule composed of two fatty acid chains and a phosphate group. The plasma membrane regulates the passage of some substances, such as organic molecules, ions, and water, preventing the passage of some to maintain internal conditions, while actively bringing in or removing others. Other compounds move passively across the membrane.

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 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 2. The plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins. There are other components, such as cholesterol and carbohydrates, which can be found in the membrane in addition to phospholipids and protein.

The plasma membranes of cells that specialize in absorption are folded into fingerlike projections called microvilli (singular = microvillus). This folding increases the surface area of the plasma membrane. Such cells are typically found lining the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food. This is an excellent example of form matching the function of a structure. 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.

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