The Cell Surface

Demonstrate familiarity with various cell surface specializations

In this outcome, we’ll learn about the cell surface including the cell membrane, cell junctions, and the cell wall.

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the structure and function of cell membranes
  • Describe cell junctions found in plant cells (plasmodesmata) and animal cells (tight junctions, desmosomes, gap junctions)
  • Describe the structure and function of the cell wall

Extracellular Matrix of Animal Cells

Most animal cells release materials into the extracellular space. The primary components of these materials are proteins, and the most abundant protein is collagen. Collagen fibers are interwoven with carbohydrate-containing protein molecules called proteoglycans. Collectively, these materials are called the extracellular matrix (Figure 1). Not only does the extracellular matrix hold the cells together to form a tissue, but it also allows the cells within the tissue to communicate with each other. How can this happen?

This illustration shows the plasma membrane. Embedded in the plasma membrane are integral membrane proteins called integrins. On the exterior of the cell is a vast network of collagen fibers. The fibers are attached to the integrins via a protein called fibronectin. Proteoglycan complexes also extend from the plasma membrane to the extracellular matrix. A close-up view shows that each proteoglycan complex is composed of a polysaccharide core. Proteins branch from this core, and carbohydrates branch from the proteins. The inside of the cytoplasmic membrane is lined with microfilaments of the cytoskeleton.

Figure 1. The extracellular matrix consists of a network of proteins and carbohydrates.

Cells have protein receptors on the extracellular surfaces of their plasma membranes. When a molecule within the matrix binds to the receptor, it changes the molecular structure of the receptor. The receptor, in turn, changes the conformation of the microfilaments positioned just inside the plasma membrane. These conformational changes induce chemical signals inside the cell that reach the nucleus and turn “on” or “off” the transcription of specific sections of DNA, which affects the production of associated proteins, thus changing the activities within the cell.

Blood clotting provides an example of the role of the extracellular matrix in cell communication. When the cells lining a blood vessel are damaged, they display a protein receptor called tissue factor. When tissue factor binds with another factor in the extracellular matrix, it causes platelets to adhere to the wall of the damaged blood vessel, stimulates the adjacent smooth muscle cells in the blood vessel to contract (thus constricting the blood vessel), and initiates a series of steps that stimulate the platelets to produce clotting factors.

Intercellular Junctions

Cells can also communicate with each other via direct contact, referred to as intercellular junctions. There are some differences in the ways that plant and animal cells do this. Plasmodesmata are junctions between plant cells, whereas animal cell contacts include tight junctions, gap junctions, and desmosomes.


In general, long stretches of the plasma membranes of neighboring plant cells cannot touch one another because they are separated by the cell wall that surrounds each cell. How then, can a plant transfer water and other soil nutrients from its roots, through its stems, and to its leaves? Such transport uses the vascular tissues (xylem and phloem) primarily. There also exist structural modifications called plasmodesmata (singular = plasmodesma), numerous channels that pass between cell walls of adjacent plant cells, connect their cytoplasm, and enable materials to be transported from cell to cell, and thus throughout the plant (Figure 2).

This illustration shows two plant cells side-by-side. A gap in the cell wall, a plasmodesma, allows fluid and small molecules to pass from the cytoplasm of one cell to the cytoplasm of the other.

Figure 2. A plasmodesma is a channel between the cell walls of two adjacent plant cells. Plasmodesmata allow materials to pass from the cytoplasm of one plant cell to the cytoplasm of an adjacent cell.

Tight Junctions

tight junction is a watertight seal between two adjacent animal cells (Figure 3). The cells are held tightly against each other by proteins (predominantly two proteins called claudins and occludins).

This illustration shows two cell membranes joined together by a matrix of tight junctions.

Figure 3. Tight junctions form watertight connections between adjacent animal cells. Proteins create tight junction adherence. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

This tight adherence prevents materials from leaking between the cells; tight junctions are typically found in epithelial tissues that line internal organs and cavities, and comprise most of the skin. For example, the tight junctions of the epithelial cells lining your urinary bladder prevent urine from leaking out into the extracellular space.


Also found only in animal cells are desmosomes, which act like spot welds between adjacent epithelial cells (Figure 4). Short proteins called cadherins in the plasma membrane connect to intermediate filaments to create desmosomes. The cadherins join two adjacent cells together and maintain the cells in a sheet-like formation in organs and tissues that stretch, like the skin, heart, and muscles.

This illustration shows two cells fused together by a desmosome. Cadherins extend from each cell and join the two cells together. Intermediate filaments connect to cadherins on the inside of the cell.

Figure 4. A desmosome forms a very strong spot weld between cells. It is created by the linkage of cadherins and intermediate filaments. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Gap Junctions

Gap junctions in animal cells are like plasmodesmata in plant cells in that they are channels between adjacent cells that allow for the transport of ions, nutrients, and other substances that enable cells to communicate (Figure 5). Structurally, however, gap junctions and plasmodesmata differ.

This illustration shows two cells joined together with protein pores called gap junctions that allow water and small molecules to pass through.

Figure 5. A gap junction is a protein-lined pore that allows water and small molecules to pass between adjacent animal cells. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

Gap junctions develop when a set of six proteins (called connexins) in the plasma membrane arrange themselves in an elongated donut-like configuration called a connexon. When the pores (“doughnut holes”) of connexons in adjacent animal cells align, a channel between the two cells forms. Gap junctions are particularly important in cardiac muscle: The electrical signal for the muscle to contract is passed efficiently through gap junctions, allowing the heart muscle cells to contract in tandem.

Animal cells communicate via their extracellular matrices and are connected to each other via tight junctions, desmosomes, and gap junctions. Plant cells are connected and communicate with each other via plasmodesmata.

When protein receptors on the surface of the plasma membrane of an animal cell bind to a substance in the extracellular matrix, a chain of reactions begins that changes activities taking place within the cell. Plasmodesmata are channels between adjacent plant cells, while gap junctions are channels between adjacent animal cells. However, their structures are quite different. A tight junction is a watertight seal between two adjacent cells, while a desmosome acts like a spot weld.

Cell Membranes

Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane (Figure 6), 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 6. 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 7). 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 7. 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 Cell Wall

Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts and other specialized plastids, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.

Part a: This illustration shows a typical eukaryotic animal cell, which is egg shaped. The fluid inside the cell is called the cytoplasm, and the cell is surrounded by a cell membrane. The nucleus takes up about one-half the width of the cell. Inside the nucleus is the chromatin, which is composed of DNA and associated proteins. A region of the chromatin is condensed into the nucleolus, a structure where ribosomes are synthesized. The nucleus is encased in a nuclear envelope, which is perforated by protein-lined pores that allow entry of material into the nucleus. The nucleus is surrounded by the rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, or ER. The smooth ER is the site of lipid synthesis. The rough ER has embedded ribosomes that give it a bumpy appearance. It synthesizes membrane and secretory proteins. In addition to the ER, many other organelles float inside the cytoplasm. These include the Golgi apparatus, which modifies proteins and lipids synthesized in the ER. The Golgi apparatus is made of layers of flat membranes. Mitochondria, which produce food for the cell, have an outer membrane and a highly folded inner membrane. Other, smaller organelles include peroxisomes that metabolize waste, lysosomes that digest food, and vacuoles. Ribosomes, responsible for protein synthesis, also float freely in the cytoplasm and are depicted as small dots. The last cellular component shown is the cytoskeleton, which has four different types of components: microfilaments, intermediate filaments, microtubules, and centrosomes. Microfilaments are fibrous proteins that line the cell membrane and make up the cellular cortex. Intermediate filaments are fibrous proteins that hold organelles in place. Microtubules form the mitotic spindle and maintain cell shape. Centrosomes are made of two tubular structures at right angles to one another. They form the microtubule-organizing center. Part b: This illustration depicts a typical eukaryotic plant cell. The nucleus of a plant cell contains chromatin and a nucleolus, the same as an animal cell. Other structures that the plant cell has in common with the animal cell include rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, peroxisomes, and ribosomes. The fluid inside the plant cell is called the cytoplasm, just as it is in an animal cell. The plant cell has three of the four cytoskeletal components found in animal cells: microtubules, intermediate filaments, and microfilaments. Plant cells do not have centrosomes. Plant cells have four structures not found in animals cells: chloroplasts, plastids, a central vacuole, and a cell wall. Chloroplasts are responsible for photosynthesis; they have an outer membrane, an inner membrane, and stack of membranes inside the inner membrane. The central vacuole is a very large, fluid-filled structure that maintains pressure against the cell wall. Plastids store pigments. The cell wall is outside the cell membrane.

Figure 8. 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.

If you examine Figure 8b, the diagram of a plant cell, you will see 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, as do some prokaryotic cells. While the chief component of prokaryotic cell walls is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant cell wall is cellulose (Figure 9), a polysaccharide made up of glucose units. Have you ever noticed that when you bite into a raw vegetable, like celery, it crunches? That’s because you are tearing the rigid cell walls of the celery cells with your teeth.

This illustration shows three glucose subunits that are attached together. Dashed lines at each end indicate that many more subunits make up an entire cellulose fiber. Each glucose subunit is a closed ring composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.

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.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.