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Cell Membrane Transport

The cell is bound by an outer membrane that, in accord with the fluid mosaic model, is comprised of a phospholipid lipid bilayer with proteins—molecules that also act as receptor sites—interspersed within the phospholipid bilayer. Varieties of channels exist within the membrane. There are a number of internal cellular membranes that partially partition the intercellular matrix, and that ultimately become continuous with the nuclear membrane.

There are three principal mechanisms of outer cellular membrane transport (i.e., means by which molecules can pass through the boundary cellular membrane). The transport mechanisms are passive, or gradient diffusion, facilitated diffusion, and active transport.

Diffusion is a process in which the random motions of molecules or other particles result in a net movement from a region of high concentration to a region of lower concentration. A familiar example of diffusion is the dissemination of floral perfumes from a bouquet to all parts of the motionless air of a room. The rate of flow of the diffusing substance is proportional to the concentration gradient for a given direction of diffusion. Thus, if the concentration of the diffusing substance is very high at the source, and is diffusing in a direction where little or none is found, the diffusion rate will be maximized. Several substances may diffuse more or less independently and simultaneously within a space or volume of liquid. Because lightweight molecules have higher average speeds than heavy molecules at the same temperature, they also tend to diffuse more rapidly. Molecules of the same weight move more rapidly at higher temperatures, increasing the rate of diffusion as the temperature rises.

Driven by concentration gradients, diffusion in the cell usually takes place through channels or pores lined by proteins. Size and electrical charge may inhibit or prohibit the passage of certain molecules or electrolytes (e.g., sodium, potassium, etc.).

Osmosis describes diffusion of water across cell membranes. Although water is a polar molecule (i.e., has overall partially positive and negative charges separated by its molecular structure), transmembrane proteins form hydrophilic (water loving) channels to through which water molecules may move.

Facilitated diffusion is the diffusion of a substance not moving against a concentration gradient (i.e., from a region of low concentration to high concentration) but which require the assistance of other molecules. These are not considered to be energetic reactions (i.e., energy in the form of use of adenosine triphosphate molecules (ATP) is not required. The facilitation or assistance—usually in physically turning or orienting a molecule so that it may more easily pass through a membrane—may be by other molecules undergoing their own random motion.

Transmembrane proteins establish pores through which ions and some small hydrophilic molecules are able to pass by diffusion. The channels open and close according to the physiological needs and state of the cell. Because they open and close transmembrane proteins are termed "gated" proteins. Control of the opening and closing mechanism may be via mechanical, electrical, or other types of membrane changes that may occur as various molecules bind to cell receptor sites.

Active transport is movement of molecules across a cell membrane or membrane of a cell organelle, from a region of low concentration to a region of high concentration. Since these molecules are being moved against a concentration gradient, cellular energy is required for active transport. Active transport allows a cell to maintain conditions different from the surrounding environment.

There are two main types of active transport; movement directly across the cell membrane with assistance from transport proteins, and endocytosis, the engulfing of materials into a cell using the processes of pinocytosis, phagocytosis, or receptor-mediated endocytosis.

Transport proteins found within the phospholipid bilayer of the cell membrane can move substances directly across the cell membrane, molecule by molecule. The sodium-potassium pump, which is found in many cells and helps nerve cells to pass their signals in the form of electrical impulses, is a well-studied example of active transport using transport proteins. The transport proteins that are an essential part of the sodium-potassium pump maintain a higher concentration of potassium ions inside the cells compared to outside, and a higher concentration of sodium ions outside of cells compared to inside. In order to carry the ions across the cell membrane and against the concentration gradient, the transport proteins have very specific shapes that only fit or bond well with sodium and potassium ions. Because the transport of these ions is against the concentration gradient, it requires a significant amount of energy.

Endocytosis is an infolding and then pinching in of the cell membrane so that materials are engulfed into a vacuole or vesicle within the cell. Pinocytosis is the process in which cells engulf liquids. The liquids may or may not contain dissolved materials. Phagocytosis is the process in which the materials that are taken into the cell are solid particles. With receptor-mediated endocytosis the substances that are to be transported into the cell first bind to specific sites or receptor proteins on the outside of the cell. The substances can then be engulfed into the cell. As the materials are being carried into the cell, the cell membrane pinches in forming a vacuole or other vesicle. The materials can then be used inside the cell. Because all types of endocytosis use energy, they are considered active transport.



Cooper, Geoffrey M. The Cell—A Molecular Approach. 2nd ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2000.

Lodish, H., et. al. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co., 2000.


Karow, Julia. "Cell Membrane Exclusivity." Scientific American 23 (October 2000).

Nicolson, Garth L., and S.J. Singer. "The Fluid Mosaic Model of the Structure of Cell Membranes." Science 18 (February 1972): 720–730.


Kimball, John W. "Transport Across Cell Membranes." Kimball's Biology Pages. August 17, 2002 (cited January 2003.) <http://users.rcn.com/jkimball.ma.ultranet/BiologyPages/D/Diffusion.html>.

K. Lee Lerner

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to Chimaera