Endocytosis and Exocytosis

Describe the primary mechanisms by which cells import and export macromolecules

In addition to moving small ions and molecules through the membrane, cells also need to remove and take in larger molecules and particles. Some cells are even capable of engulfing entire unicellular microorganisms. You might have correctly hypothesized that the uptake and release of large particles by the cell requires energy. A large particle, however, cannot pass through the membrane, even with energy supplied by the cell.

There are two primary mechanisms that transport these large particles: endocytosis and exocytosis.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe endocytosis and identify different varieties of import, including phagocytosis, pinocytosis, and receptor-mediated endocytosis
  • Identify the steps of exocytosis

 Endocytosis

Endocytosis is a type of active transport that moves particles, such as large molecules, parts of cells, and even whole cells, into a cell. There are different variations of endocytosis, but all share a common characteristic: the plasma membrane of the cell invaginates, forming a pocket around the target particle. The pocket pinches off, resulting in the particle being contained in a newly created intracellular vesicle formed from the plasma membrane.

Phagocytosis

This illustration shows a plasma membrane forming a pocket around a particle in the extracellular fluid. The membrane subsequently engulfs the particle, which becomes trapped in a vesicle.

Figure 1. In phagocytosis, the cell membrane surrounds the particle and engulfs it. (credit: Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Phagocytosis (the condition of “cell eating”) is the process by which large particles, such as cells or relatively large particles, are taken in by a cell. For example, when microorganisms invade the human body, a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil will remove the invaders through this process, surrounding and engulfing the microorganism, which is then destroyed by the neutrophil (Figure 1).

In preparation for phagocytosis, a portion of the inward-facing surface of the plasma membrane becomes coated with a protein called clathrin, which stabilizes this section of the membrane. The coated portion of the membrane then extends from the body of the cell and surrounds the particle, eventually enclosing it. Once the vesicle containing the particle is enclosed within the cell, the clathrin disengages from the membrane and the vesicle merges with a lysosome for the breakdown of the material in the newly formed compartment (endosome). When accessible nutrients from the degradation of the vesicular contents have been extracted, the newly formed endosome merges with the plasma membrane and releases its contents into the extracellular fluid. The endosomal membrane again becomes part of the plasma membrane.

Pinocytosis

This illustration shows a plasma membrane forming a pocket around fluid in the extracellular fluid. The membrane subsequently engulfs the fluid, which becomes trapped in a vacuole.

Figure 2. In pinocytosis, the cell membrane invaginates, surrounds a small volume of fluid, and pinches off. (credit: Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

A variation of endocytosis is called pinocytosis. This literally means “cell drinking” and was named at a time when the assumption was that the cell was purposefully taking in extracellular fluid. In reality, this is a process that takes in molecules, including water, which the cell needs from the extracellular fluid. Pinocytosis results in a much smaller vesicle than does phagocytosis, and the vesicle does not need to merge with a lysosome (Figure 2).

A variation of pinocytosis is called potocytosis. This process uses a coating protein, called caveolin, on the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane, which performs a similar function to clathrin. The cavities in the plasma membrane that form the vacuoles have membrane receptors and lipid rafts in addition to caveolin.

The vacuoles or vesicles formed in caveolae (singular caveola) are smaller than those in pinocytosis. Potocytosis is used to bring small molecules into the cell and to transport these molecules through the cell for their release on the other side of the cell, a process called transcytosis.

Receptor-Mediated Endocytosis

This illustration shows a part of the plasma membrane that is clathrin-coated on the cytoplasmic side and has receptors on the extracellular side. The receptors bind a substance, then pinch off to form a vesicle.

Figure 3. In receptor-mediated endocytosis, uptake of substances by the cell is targeted to a single type of substance that binds to the receptor on the external surface of the cell membrane. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

A targeted variation of endocytosis employs receptor proteins in the plasma membrane that have a specific binding affinity for certain substances (Figure 3).

In receptor-mediated endocytosis, as in phagocytosis, clathrin is attached to the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane. If uptake of a compound is dependent on receptor-mediated endocytosis and the process is ineffective, the material will not be removed from the tissue fluids or blood. Instead, it will stay in those fluids and increase in concentration.

Some human diseases are caused by the failure of receptor-mediated endocytosis. For example, the form of cholesterol termed low-density lipoprotein or LDL (also referred to as “bad” cholesterol) is removed from the blood by receptor-mediated endocytosis. In the human genetic disease familial hypercholesterolemia, the LDL receptors are defective or missing entirely. People with this condition have life-threatening levels of cholesterol in their blood, because their cells cannot clear LDL particles from their blood.

Although receptor-mediated endocytosis is designed to bring specific substances that are normally found in the extracellular fluid into the cell, other substances may gain entry into the cell at the same site. Flu viruses, diphtheria, and cholera toxin all have sites that cross-react with normal receptor-binding sites and gain entry into cells.

Exocytosis

The reverse process of moving material into a cell is the process of exocytosis. Exocytosis is the opposite of the processes discussed in the last section in that its purpose is to expel material from the cell into the extracellular fluid. Waste material is enveloped in a membrane and fuses with the interior of the plasma membrane. This fusion opens the membranous envelope on the exterior of the cell, and the waste material is expelled into the extracellular space (Figure 4). Other examples of cells releasing molecules via exocytosis include the secretion of proteins of the extracellular matrix and secretion of neurotransmitters into the synaptic cleft by synaptic vesicles.

This illustration shows vesicles fusing with the plasma membrane and releasing their contents to the extracellular fluid.

Figure 4. In exocytosis, vesicles containing substances fuse with the plasma membrane. The contents are then released to the exterior of the cell. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

A summary of the cellular transport methods discussed is contained in Table 1, which also includes the energy requirements and materials transported by each.

Table 1. Methods of Transport, Energy Requirements, and Types of Material Transported
Transport Method Active/Passive Material Transported
Diffusion Passive Small-molecular weight material
Osmosis Passive Water
Facilitated transport/diffusion Passive Sodium, potassium, calcium, glucose
Primary active transport Active Sodium, potassium, calcium
Secondary active transport Active Amino acids, lactose
Phagocytosis Active Large macromolecules, whole cells, or cellular structures
Pinocytosis and potocytosis Active Small molecules (liquids/water)
Receptor-mediated endocytosis Active Large quantities of macromolecules
Exocytosis Active Waste materials, proteins for the extracellular matrix, neurotransmitters

In Summary: Endocytosis and Exocytosis

Cells perform three main types of endocytosis. Phagocytosis is the process by which cells ingest large particles, including other cells, by enclosing the particles in an extension of the cell membrane and budding off a new vesicle. During pinocytosis, cells take in molecules such as water from the extracellular fluid. Finally, receptor-mediated endocytosis is a targeted version of endocytosis where receptor proteins in the plasma membrane ensure only specific, targeted substances are brought into the cell.

Exocytosis in many ways is the reverse process from endocytosis. Here cells expel material through the fusion of vesicles with the plasma membrane and subsequent dumping of their content into the extracellular fluid.

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