We have discussed how the lipid bilayer acts as an efficient barrier by only allowing a very small number of non-polar molecules to freely enter or exit a cell. While for the most part this selectivity is a valuable function and allows the cell to maintain its integrity, cells do need to move certain large, polar molecules such as amino acids, sugars, and nucleotides across their membranes. As a result, cell membranes require specific structures that allow for the transport of certain molecules.
There are a number of different ways that molecules can pass from one side of a cell membrane to the other. Some such means, like diffusion and osmosis, are natural processes that require no expenditure of energy from the cell and are called passive transport. Other methods of transport do require cellular energy and are called active transport. In addition to these two forms of transport, there exist other forms of transport such as endocytosis and exocytosis, which will be discuss later and do not require the same set of membrane proteins for their function.
Diffusion is the natural phenomenon in which nonpolar molecules naturally flow from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. Osmosis is a similar process, but refers specifically to water molecules. Both of these classes of molecules we have already discussed as capable of crossing the lipid bilayer. As seen in , neither diffusion nor osmosis require the expenditure of energy.
Active transport occurs when a cell actively pumps a molecule across its membrane, against the natural direction dictated by diffusion, osmosis, or polarity. As seen in , such transport requires energy.
Both of passive and active transport are mediated with the help of transmembrane proteins that act as transporters. shows the two main classes of transport proteins: carrier proteins and channel proteins. For the most part, carrier proteins mediate active transport while channel proteins mediate passive transport. Carrier proteins create an opening in the lipid bilayer by undergoing a conformational change upon the binding of the molecule. Channel proteins form hydrophilic pores across the lipid bilayer. When open, these pores allow specific molecules to pass through. There is one other class of transport proteins called ionophores. These are small, hydrophobic proteins that increase bilayer permeability for specific ions.
Transport proteins are critical to cell life and cell interactions. They allow for the proper distribution of ions and molecules in multicellular organisms. Additionally, they can help to maintain proper intra- and extra-cellular pH levels, facilitate communication between cells, and are involved numerous other essential functions including protein sythesis.