Proteins and Membrane Transport

Proteins are long chains of amino acids. They have unique shapes and chemical properties that dictate their diverse functions. Proteins govern the range of materials that enter and leave the cell, relay signals from the environment to the interior, and participate in many metabolic reactions, harvesting or harnessing energy to transform raw materials into the molecules needed by the cell for growth, repair, or other functions. Cytoskeleton proteins give the cell its structure. Approximately half the weight of a membrane is due to the proteins embedded in it. Proteins give each organelle, and the cell as a whole, its unique character.

As noted, ions cannot pass freely through the cell's phospholipid membrane. Instead, most ions flow through special channels built from multiple protein subunits that together form a pore from one side of the membrane to the other. Some channels are gated, fitted with proteins that act as hinged doors, blocking the opening until stimulated to swing out of the way. Neurons, for instance, have gated sodium channels that open to allow an electrical impulse to pass and then close to recharge the cell for another firing. Molecules can also cross the membrane attached to protein pumps that are powered by ATP. Transport of scarce molecules such as sugars can also be powered indirectly, by coupling their movement to the flow of another substance. In addition to traversing the membrane directly, water passes through special channels formed by a protein called aquaporin.

ATP adenosine triphos-phate, a high-energy compound used to power cell processes

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