The cell membrane is a dynamic structure composed of lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates. It protects the cell by preventing materials from leaking out, controls what can enter or leave through the membrane, provides a binding site for hormones and other chemicals, and serves as an identification card for the immune system to distinguish between “self” and “non-self” cells. We will first investigate the anatomy of the cell membrane and then continue on to study the physiology of membrane transport.
The phospholipid bilayer is the main fabric of the membrane. The bilayer’s structure causes the membrane to be semi-permeable. Remember that phospholipid molecules are amphiphilic, which means that they contain both a nonpolar and polar region. Phospholipids have a polar head (it contains a charged phosphate group) with two nonpolar hydrophobic fatty acid tails. The tails of the phospholipids face each other in the core of the membrane while each polar head lies on the outside and inside of the cell. Having the polar heads oriented toward the external and internal sides of the membrane attracts other polar molecules to the cell membrane. The hydrophobic core blocks the diffusion of hydrophilic ions and polar molecules. Small hydrophobic molecules and gases, which can dissolve in the membrane’s core, cross it with ease.
Other molecules require proteins to transport them across the membrane. Proteins determine most of the membrane’s specific functions. The plasma membrane and the membranes of the various organelles each have unique collections of proteins. For example, to date more than 50 kinds of proteins have been found in the plasma membrane of red blood cells.
Importance of Phospholipid Membrane Structure
What is important about the structure of a phospholipid membrane? First, it is fluid. This allows cells to change shape, permitting growth and movement. The fluidity of the membrane is regulated by the types of phospholipids and the presence of cholesterol. Second, the phospholipid membrane is selectively permeable.
The ability of a molecule to pass through the membrane depends on its polarity and to some extent its size. Many non-polar molecules such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and small hydrocarbons can flow easily through cell membranes. This feature of membranes is very important because hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in our blood, is contained within red blood cells. Oxygen must be able to freely cross the membrane so that hemoglobin can get fully loaded with oxygen in our lungs, and deliver it effectively to our tissues. Most polar substances are stopped by a cell membrane, except perhaps for small polar compounds like the one carbon alcohol, methanol. Glucose is too large to pass through the membrane unassisted and a special transporter protein ferries it across. One type of diabetes is caused by misregulation of the glucose transporter. This decreases the ability of glucose to enter the cell and results in high blood glucose levels. Charged ions, such as sodium (Na+) or potassium (K+) ions seldom go through a membrane, consequently they also need special transporter molecules to pass through the membrane. The inability of Na+ and K+ to pass through the membrane allows the cell to regulate the concentrations of these ions on the inside or outside of the cell. The conduction of electrical signals in your neurons is based on the ability of cells to control Na+ and K+ levels.
Selectively permeable membranes allow cells to keep the chemistry of the cytoplasm different from that of the external environment. It also allows them to maintain chemically unique conditions inside their organelles.
Fluidity of Cell Membranes
The cell membrane is not a static structure. It is a dynamic structure that allows the movement of phospholipids and proteins. Fluidity is a term used to describe the ease of movement of molecules in the membrane and is an important characteristic for cell function. Fluidity is dependent on the temperature (increased temperatures it more fluid and decreased temperatures make it more solid), saturated fatty acids and unsaturated fatty acids. Saturated fatty acids make the membrane less fluid while unsaturated fatty acids make it more fluid. The correct ratio of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids keeps the membrane fluid at any temperature conducive to life. For example, winter wheat responds to decreasing temperatures by increasing the amount of unsaturated fatty acids in cell membranes to prevent the cell membrane from becoming too solid in the cold. In animal cells, cholesterol helps to prevent the packing of fatty acid tails and thus lowers the requirement of unsaturated fatty acids. This helps maintain the fluid nature of the cell membrane without it becoming too liquid at body temperature.