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Passive Transport and Selective Permeability

What is passive transport?

Plasma membranes must allow certain substances to enter and leave a cell. They must also prevent some harmful materials from entering and some essential materials from leaving. In other words, plasma membranes are selectively permeable—they allow some substances to pass through, but not others. If they were to lose this selectivity, the cell would no longer be able to sustain itself, and it would be destroyed.

Some cells require larger amounts of specific substances than do other cells. They must have a way of obtaining these materials from extracellular fluids. This may happen passively, as certain materials move back and forth, or the cell may have special mechanisms that facilitate transport.

Some materials are so important to a cell that it spends some of its energy, hydrolyzing adenosine triphosphate (ATP), to obtain these materials. Red blood cells use some of their energy doing just that. All cells spend the majority of their energy to maintain an imbalance of sodium and potassium ions between the interior and exterior of the cell.

The most direct forms of membrane transport are passive. Passive transport is a naturally occurring phenomenon and does not require the cell to exert any of its energy to accomplish the movement. In passive transport, substances move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration. A physical space in which there is a range of concentrations of a single substance is said to have a concentration gradient.

Selective Permeability

Plasma membranes are asymmetric. In other words, the interior of the membrane is not identical to the exterior of the membrane. In fact, there is a considerable difference between the array of phospholipids and proteins between the two leaflets that form a membrane. On the interior of the membrane, some proteins serve to anchor the membrane to fibers of the cytoskeleton. Similarly, there are peripheral proteins on the exterior of the membrane that bind elements of the extracellular matrix.

Carbohydrates, attached to lipids or proteins, are also found on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane. These carbohydrate complexes help the cell bind substances that the cell needs in the extracellular fluid. This adds considerably to the selective nature of plasma membranes (see image below).

The exterior surface of the plasma membrane is not identical to the interior surface of the same membrane. Image Attribution: OpenStax Biology

Recall that plasma membranes are amphiphilic. In other words, they have hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. This characteristic helps the movement of some materials through the membrane and hinders the movement of others. For instance, lipid-soluble material with a low molecular weight can easily slip through the hydrophobic lipid core of the membrane.

Similarly, substances such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K readily pass through the plasma membranes in the digestive tract and other tissues. Also, fat-soluble drugs and hormones gain easy entry into cells. In fact, their transportation into the body’s tissues and organs occurs readily. Molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide have no charge and so pass through membranes by simple diffusion.

Polar substances present problems for the membrane. Some polar molecules connect easily with the outside of a cell. However, they cannot readily pass through the lipid core of the plasma membrane. Additionally, while small ions could easily slip through the spaces in the mosaic of the membrane, their charge prevents them from doing so.

Ions such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and chloride must have special means of penetrating plasma membranes. Simple sugars and amino acids also need help with transport across plasma membranes, achieved by various transmembrane proteins (channels).

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