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Carrier Proteins

Carrier Proteins

Energy? Nerve impulses? What do they have in common? Besides being essential mechanisms for your body, they also involve proteins.

Proteins perform many crucial functions in our bodies. For example, structural proteins keep the literal structure of our bodies and foods, making them necessary for survival. Other functions of proteins include helping to fight diseases and break down foods.

Unlike other proteins with commercial uses, such as collagen and keratin, carrier proteins aren't usually mentioned outside of science. Nevertheless, this doesn't make carrier proteins any less critical, as they help our cells with mechanisms of transport that keep us functioning.

We will cover carrier proteins and how they work in our bodies!

Carrier Proteins Definition

Organic compounds are essentially chemical compounds that contain carbon bonds. Carbon is essential for life, as it quickly forms bonds with other molecules and components, allowing life to occur readily. Proteins are another type of organic compound, like carbohydrates, but their main functions include acting as antibodies to protect our immune system, enzymes to speed up chemical reactions, etc.

Now, let's look at the definition of carrier proteins.

Carrier proteins transport molecules from one side of the cell membrane to another.

  • The cell membrane is a selectively permeable structure that separates the inside of the cell from the outside environment.

Other names for carrier proteins include transporters and permeases.

The cell membrane's selective permeability is why carrier proteins are necessary. Carrier proteins allow polar molecules and ions that cannot easily pass through the cell membrane to enter and exit the cell.

Because of the cell membrane's structure, polar molecules and ions cannot easily enter the cell. The cell membrane is made of phospholipids arranged into two layers making it a phospholipid bilayer.

Phospholipids are a type of lipid. Lipids are organic compounds containing fatty acids and are insoluble in water. A phospholipid molecule consists of a hydrophilic or water-loving head, shown in white in Figure 1, and two hydrophobic tails, shown in yellow.

The hydrophobic tails and hydrophilic head make the phospholipids an amphipathic molecule. An amphipathic molecule is a molecule that has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts.

Polar and ion molecules have a more challenging time passing through because polar and ionic molecules are water-loving or hydrophilic, and the way the cellular membrane is structured has the hydrophilic heads facing the outside and the hydrophobic tails facing the inside.

This means that small non-polar or hydrophobic molecules don't need carrier proteins to help them go in and out of the cell.

Other ways phospholipids can organize themselves beside the phospholipid bilayer are liposomes and micelles. Liposomes are spherical sacs made of phospholipids, usually formed to carry nutrients or substances into the cell. Liposomes can artificially be used to deliver drugs into our bodies, as illustrated in Figure 2.

Micelles are a bunch of molecules forming a colloidal mixture, as illustrated in Figure 1. Colloidal particles are particles in which one substance is suspended in another due to its inability to dissolve.

Carrier Proteins Phospholipids Study SmarterFigure 1: Different structures of phospholipids shown. Wikimedia, LadyofHats.

Carrier Proteins Liposome Drug Delivery Study SmarterFigure 2: Liposome used for drug delivery shown. Wikimedia, Kosigrim.

Carrier proteins function

Carrier proteins function by changing shape. This change in form allows molecules and substances to pass through the cell membrane. Carrier proteins attach or bind themselves to specific molecules or ions and transport them across the membrane in and out of cells.

Carrier proteins participate in both active and passive modes of transport.

  • In passive transport, substances diffuse from high to low concentrations. Passive transport occurs because of the concentration gradient created by the difference in concentrations in two areas.

For example, let's say that potassium ions \((K^+)\) are higher inside the cell than outside. In this case, passive transport would mean the potassium ions would diffuse outside the cell.

But since potassium or \((K^+)\) are ions or charged molecules, they need carrier proteins or other types of membrane transport proteins to help get through the phospholipid bilayer. This passive-mediated transport is called facilitated diffusion.

Keep in mind that there are other types of proteins besides transport proteins. Still, here we are focusing on carrier proteins that fall under transport, as their job is to facilitate the diffusion of molecules.

Membrane proteins can be found either integrated or in the periphery of the phospholipid bilayer. Membrane proteins have many functions, but some of them are carrier proteins that allow transport to occur in and out of the cell. Carrier proteins are considered membrane transport proteins.

As for the active mode of transport, we'll elaborate on that in the next section.

Carrier Proteins Active Transport

Carrier proteins also participate in active transport.

Active transport occurs when molecules or substances move against the concentration gradient, or the opposite of passive transport. This means that, instead of going from high to low concentration, the molecules travel from low to high concentration.

Both active and passive means of transport involve carrier proteins changing shape as they move molecules from one side of the cell to the other. The difference is that active transport requires chemical energy in the form of ATP. ATP, or adenosine phosphate, is a molecule that provides cells with a usable form of energy.

One of the most famous examples of active transport that uses carrier proteins is the sodium-potassium pump.

The sodium-potassium (Na⁺/K⁺) pump is crucial for our brains and bodies because it sends nerve impulses. Nerve impulses are vital to our bodies because they communicate information to our brain and spinal cord about what's happening inside and outside our bodies. For example, when we touch something hot, our nerve impulses quickly communicate to tell us that we should avoid the heat and not receive burns. Nerve impulses also help our bodies coordinate movement with our brains.

The general steps to the sodium-potassium pump are as follows and shown in Figure 3:

  1. Three sodium ions bind to a carrier protein.

  2. ATP is hydrolyzed into ADP, releasing one phosphate group. This one phosphate group attaches to the pump and is used to supply the energy for the change in the shape of the carrier protein.

  3. The pump or carrier protein undergoes conformational or change in shape and allows the sodium \((Na^+)\) ions to cross the membrane and go out of the cell.

  4. This conformational change allows two potassium \((K^+)\) to bind to the carrier protein.

  5. The phosphate group is released from the pump, allowing the carrier protein to return to its original shape.

  6. This change to the original shape allows the two potassium \((K^+)\) to travel across the membrane and into the cell.

Carrier Proteins Sodium-Potassium Pump Study SmarterFigure 3: The sodium-potassium pump illustrated. Wikimedia, LadyofHats.

Carrier Proteins vs. Channel Proteins

Channel proteins are another type of transport protein. They act similar to pores on the skin, except in the cell membrane. They act like channels, hence the name, and can let small ions through. Channel proteins are also membrane proteins that are permanently positioned in the membrane, making them integral membrane proteins.

Unlike carrier proteins, channel proteins stay open to the outside and inside the cell, as shown in Figure 4.

An example of a famous channel protein is aquaporin. Aquaporins allow water to diffuse in or out of the cell quickly.

The transport rate of channel proteins occurs much faster than the rate of transport for carrier proteins. This is because carrier proteins don't remain open and have to undergo conformational changes.

Channel proteins also deal with passive transport, while carrier proteins deal with both passive and active transport. Channel proteins are highly selective and often only accept one type of molecule. Other channel proteins besides aquaporin include chloride, calcium, potassium, and sodium ions.

Overall, transport proteins deal with either 1) larger hydrophobic molecules or 2) small to large ions or hydrophilic molecules. Non-facilitated diffusion, or simple diffusion, only occurs for small enough hydrophobic molecules.

Simple diffusion is passive diffusion that doesn't need any transport proteins. If a molecule moves through the cell membrane or phospholipid bilayer without any energy or protein aid, then they are undergoing simple diffusion.

An example of a simple, but vital, diffusion that frequently occurs in our bodies is oxygen diffusing or moving into cells and tissues. If diffusion of oxygen didn't happen quickly and passively, we'd most likely get oxygen deprivation which could lead to seizures, comas, or other life-threatening effects.

Carrier Proteins Channel vs Carrier Proteins Study SmarterFigure 4: Protein channel (left) compared to carrier proteins (right). Wikimedia, LadyofHats.

Carrier Protein Example

Carrier proteins can be categorized based on the molecule that they transport in and out of the cell. Facilitated diffusion for carrier proteins usually involves sugars or amino acids.

Amino acids are monomers, or building blocks of proteins, while sugars are carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates are organic compounds that store energy, such as sugar and starches.

Carrier proteins also perform transport actively. We can categorize active transports by the energy source used: chemical or ATP, photon, or electrochemically driven. Electrochemical potentials can drive the diffusion of substances through the difference in concentration inside and outside the cell and the charges of the molecules involved.

For example, if we refer back to the sodium-potassium pump, the two molecules involved are potassium and sodium ions. The difference between the concentrations of both ions inside and outside the cell creates a membrane potential that drives nerve impulses. On the other hand, a photon refers to particles of light, so we can also call this type of transport light-driven, which can be found in bacteria.

Bacteria are single-celled organisms that do not have structures that are membrane-bound.

The most common examples of carrier proteins are:

  • ATP-driven transport can use carrier proteins. This type of active transport couples ATP or chemical energy to drive the transport of molecules in and out of cells.

    • For example, the sodium-potassium pump discussed earlier is ATP-driven, as ATP is used to facilitate the transport of sodium and potassium ions. Sodium-potassium pumps are essential as they drive nerve impulses and maintain homeostasis in our bodies. Homeostasis is the process by which our bodies maintain stability.

    • The sodium-potassium pump is also an antiporter. An antiporter is a transporter that moves the molecules involved in opposite directions, such as sodium ions out and potassium ions into the cell.

Other types of transporters besides antiporters include uniporters and symporters. Uniporters are transporters that only move one kind of molecule. In turn, symporters transport two types of molecules, but unlike antiporters, they do it in the same direction.

  • Sodium-glucose pump uses the electrochemical gradient of the sodium ion making it secondary active transport, unlike the sodium-potassium pump, which directly uses ATP, making it a primary active transport.

    • Cells generally keep a higher sodium concentration inside and a higher potassium concentration outside the cell. The sodium-glucose pump works by a carrier protein binding to glucose and two sodium ions simultaneously. This is because glucose and sodium both don't want to go against their gradient, resulting in glucose not wanting to go into the cell and sodium wanting to go into the cell.

    • Energy gradient caused by sodium wanting to go into the cell drives the glucose along with it. If the cells wish to keep sodium at a lower concentration inside the cell relative to the outside, the cell ends up having to use the sodium-potassium pump to drive out sodium ions.

    • All in all, the sodium-glucose pump doesn't use ATP directly, making it secondary active transport. It is also a symport because glucose and sodium go into the cell or in the same direction, unlike the sodium-potassium pump.

Carrier Proteins Types of transporters Study SmarterFigure 5: Types of transporter illustrated. Wikimedia, Lupask.

Carrier Proteins - Key takeaways

  • Carrier proteins transport molecules from one side of the cell membrane to another. Other names for carrier proteins include transporters and permeases.
  • Carrier proteins function by changing shape. This change in form allows molecules and substances to pass through the cell membrane.
  • Polar and ion molecules have a more challenging time passing through because of the way the cell membrane or phospholipid bilayer is arranged.
  • Membrane proteins can be found either integrated or in the periphery of the phospholipid bilayer. Carrier proteins are considered membrane transport proteins.
  • Examples of carrier protein transport include the sodium-potassium pump and the sodium-glucose pump.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26896/#:~:text=Carrier%20proteins%20bind%20specific%20solutes,and%20then%20on%20the%20other.
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26815/#:~:text=Carrier%20proteins%20(also%20called%20carriers,be%20transported%20much%20more%20weakly.

Frequently Asked Questions about Carrier Proteins

Carrier proteins transport molecules from one side of the cell membrane to another. Other names for carrier proteins include transporters and permeases. 

Unlike carrier proteins, channel proteins stay open to the outside and inside of the cell and do not undergo conformational shape.

An example of a carrier protein is the sodium-potassium pump.

Carrier proteins bind to molecules that they transport either actively or passively. Channel proteins instead act like pores on the skin and let molecules travel through facilitated diffusion.

Carrier proteins require energy or ATP if they are transporting a molecule that requires active transport.

Final Carrier Proteins Quiz

Question

What are carrier proteins?

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Answer

Carrier proteins transport molecules from one side of the cell membrane to another. 

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Question

How does the cell membrane relate to carrier proteins?

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Answer

The cell membrane's selective permeability is why carrier proteins are necessary. 

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Question

What are the different phospholipid arrangements?

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Answer

liposome

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Question

What are amphipathic molecules?

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Answer

The hydrophobic tails and hydrophilic head make the phospholipids an amphipathic molecule. An amphipathic molecule is a molecule that has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts.

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Question

How do carrier proteins function?

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Answer

Carrier proteins function by changing shape. This change in form allows molecules and substances to pass through the cell membrane. 

Show question

Question

What's the difference between carrier and channel proteins?

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Answer

Carrier proteins bind to molecules that they transport either actively or passively. Channel proteins instead act like pores on the skin and let molecules travel through facilitated diffusion.

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Question

What types of molecules do transport proteins deal with?

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Answer

large hydrophilic molecules

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Question

What type of diffusion would cells most likely use for small hydrophobic molecules?

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Answer

simple diffusion

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Question

What's an example of simple diffusion?

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Answer

oxygen diffusing through tissues

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Question

What's an example of primary active transport?

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Answer

sodium-potassium pump

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Question

What's an example of secondary active transport? 

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Answer

sodium-potassium pump

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Question

What causes the sodium-glucose pump to work?

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Answer

The energy gradient caused by sodium wanting to go into the cell drives the glucose along with it.

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Question

What type of transporter is the sodium-potassium pump?

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Answer

antiporter

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Question

What type of transport is the sodium-glucose pump?

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Answer

symporter

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Question

What's the difference between a sodium-potassium pump and a sodium-glucose pump?

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Answer

The sodium-potassium pump is an antiporter, and the sodium-glucose pump is a symporter.

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