Biology » Cell Transport » Active Transport

Primary Active Transport

Primary Active Transport

Recall that two mechanisms exist for the transport of small-molecular weight material and small molecules. Primary active transport moves ions across a membrane and creates a difference in charge across that membrane, which is directly dependent on ATP. Secondary active transport describes the movement of material that is due to the electrochemical gradient established by primary active transport that does not directly require ATP.

The primary active transport that functions with the active transport of sodium and potassium allows secondary active transport to occur. The second transport method is still considered active because it depends on the use of energy as does primary transport (see image below).


Primary active transport moves ions across a membrane, creating an electrochemical gradient (electrogenic transport). Image Attribution: Modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal

Sodium-Potassium Pump

One of the most important pumps in animals cells is the sodium-potassium pump (Na+-K+ ATPase), which maintains the electrochemical gradient (and the correct concentrations of Na+ and K+) in living cells. The sodium-potassium pump moves K+ into the cell while moving Na+ out at the same time, at a ratio of three Na+ for every two K+ ions moved in. The Na+-K+ ATPase exists in two forms, depending on its orientation to the interior or exterior of the cell and its affinity for either sodium or potassium ions. (See image above.) The process consists of the following six steps.

  1. With the enzyme oriented towards the interior of the cell, the carrier has a high affinity for sodium ions. Three ions bind to the protein.
  2. ATP is hydrolyzed by the protein carrier and a low-energy phosphate group attaches to it.
  3. As a result, the carrier changes shape and re-orients itself towards the exterior of the membrane. The protein’s affinity for sodium decreases and the three sodium ions leave the carrier.
  4. The shape change increases the carrier’s affinity for potassium ions, and two such ions attach to the protein. Subsequently, the low-energy phosphate group detaches from the carrier.
  5. With the phosphate group removed and potassium ions attached, the carrier protein repositions itself towards the interior of the cell.
  6. The carrier protein, in its new configuration, has a decreased affinity for potassium, and the two ions are released into the cytoplasm. The protein now has a higher affinity for sodium ions, and the process starts again.

Creating an electrical imbalance

Several things have happened as a result of this process. At this point, there are more sodium ions outside of the cell than inside and more potassium ions inside than out. For every three ions of sodium that move out, two ions of potassium move in. This results in the interior being slightly more negative relative to the exterior. This difference in charge is important in creating the conditions necessary for the secondary process which we will look at in the next lesson. The sodium-potassium pump is, therefore, an electrogenic pump (a pump that creates a charge imbalance), creating an electrical imbalance across the membrane and contributing to the membrane potential.

Video Simulation of Sodium Potassium ATPase

This video below shows a simulation of active transport in a sodium-potassium ATPase.

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