In facilitated transport, also called facilitated diffusion, material moves across the plasma membrane with the assistance of transmembrane proteins down a concentration gradient (from high to low concentration) without the expenditure of cellular energy. However, the substances that undergo facilitated transport would otherwise not diffuse easily or quickly across the plasma membrane. The solution to moving polar substances and other substances across the plasma membrane rests in the proteins that span its surface. The material being transported is first attached to protein or glycoprotein receptors on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane. This allows the material that is needed by the cell to be removed from the extracellular fluid. The substances are then passed to specific integral proteins that facilitate their passage, because they form channels or pores that allow certain substances to pass through the membrane. The integral proteins involved in facilitated transport are collectively referred to as transport proteins, and they function as either channels for the material or carriers.
The integral proteins involved in facilitated transport are collectively referred to as transport proteins, and they function as either channels for the material or carriers. In both cases, they are transmembrane proteins (they span across the membrane). Channels are specific for the substance that is being transported. Channel proteins have hydrophilic domains exposed to the intracellular and extracellular fluids; they additionally have a hydrophilic channel through their core that provides a hydrated opening through the membrane layers (Figure 1). Passage through the channel allows polar compounds to avoid the nonpolar central layer of the plasma membrane that would otherwise slow or prevent their entry into the cell. Aquaporins are channel proteins that allow water to pass through the membrane at a very high rate.
Another type of protein embedded in the plasma membrane is a carrier protein. This aptly named protein binds a substance and, in doing so, triggers a change of its own shape, moving the bound molecule from the outside of the cell to its interior (Figure 2); depending on the gradient, the material may move in the opposite direction. Carrier proteins are typically specific for a single substance. This selectivity adds to the overall selectivity of the plasma membrane. The exact mechanism for the change of shape is poorly understood. Proteins can change shape when their hydrogen bonds are affected, but this may not fully explain this mechanism. Each carrier protein is specific to one substance, and there are a finite number of these proteins in any membrane. This can cause problems in transporting enough of the material for the cell to function properly. When all of the proteins are bound to their ligands, they are saturated and the rate of transport is at its maximum. Increasing the concentration gradient at this point will not result in an increased rate of transport.
An example of this process occurs in the kidney. Glucose, water, salts, ions, and amino acids needed by the body are filtered in one part of the kidney. This filtrate, which includes glucose, is then reabsorbed in another part of the kidney. Because there are only a finite number of carrier proteins for glucose, if more glucose is present than the proteins can handle, the excess is not transported and it is excreted from the body in the urine. In a diabetic individual, this is described as “spilling glucose into the urine.” A different group of carrier proteins called glucose transport proteins, or GLUTs, are involved in transporting glucose and other hexose sugars through plasma membranes within the body.
Channel and carrier proteins transport material at different rates. Channel proteins transport much more quickly than do carrier proteins. Channel proteins facilitate diffusion at a rate of tens of millions of molecules per second, whereas carrier proteins work at a rate of a thousand to a million molecules per second.
Transport of Glucose
Glucose is a carbohydrate, which is polar (you know this – you’ve dissolved sugar in water before). Because glucose is polar, it can not diffuse freely across cell membranes. This is a good thing – if glucose could diffuse freely into cells, it could also diffuse freely out of cells and your cells would never be able to store any glucose inside themselves.
Cells in your body, such as red blood cells, use facilitated diffusion to bring glucose inside the cell. The body maintains a concentration of glucose in the blood that is higher than that inside most cells (cells are constantly breaking down glucose during cellular respiration, which makes the concentration of glucose inside the cell relatively low). This means that glucose will diffuse down its concentration gradient from higher concentration in the blood to a lower concentration inside the cell. However, since glucose is polar and can’t freely pass through the membrane, it must travel through a protein channel – facilitated diffusion.
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Text adapted from: OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016 http://email@example.com