The Endomembrane System and Proteins

The Endoplasmic Reticulum

The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) (Figure) is a series of interconnected membranous sacs and tubules that collectively modifies proteins and synthesizes lipids. However, these two functions are performed in separate areas of the ER: the rough ER and the smooth ER, respectively.

The hollow portion of the ER tubules is called the lumen or cisternal space. The membrane of the ER, which is a phospholipid bilayer embedded with proteins, is continuous with the nuclear envelope.

Rough ER

The rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) is so named because the ribosomes attached to its cytoplasmic surface give it a studded appearance when viewed through an electron microscope (Figure).

In this transmission electron micrograph, the nucleus is the most prominent feature. The nucleolus is a circular, dark region inside the nucleus. A nuclear pore can be seen in the nuclear envelope that surrounds the nucleus. The rough endoplasmic reticulum surrounds the nucleus, appearing as many layers of membranes. A mitochondrion sits between the layers of the ER membrane.
This transmission electron micrograph shows the rough endoplasmic reticulum and other organelles in a pancreatic cell. (credit: modification of work by Louisa Howard)

Ribosomes transfer their newly synthesized proteins into the lumen of the RER where they undergo structural modifications, such as folding or the acquisition of side chains. These modified proteins will be incorporated into cellular membranes—the membrane of the ER or those of other organelles—or secreted from the cell (such as protein hormones, enzymes). The RER also makes phospholipids for cellular membranes.

If the phospholipids or modified proteins are not destined to stay in the RER, they will reach their destinations via transport vesicles that bud from the RER’s membrane (Figure).

Since the RER is engaged in modifying proteins (such as enzymes, for example) that will be secreted from the cell, you would be correct in assuming that the RER is abundant in cells that secrete proteins. This is the case with cells of the liver, for example.

Smooth ER

The smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER) is continuous with the RER but has few or no ribosomes on its cytoplasmic surface (Figure). Functions of the SER include synthesis of carbohydrates, lipids, and steroid hormones; detoxification of medications and poisons; and storage of calcium ions.

In muscle cells, a specialized SER called the sarcoplasmic reticulum is responsible for storage of the calcium ions that are needed to trigger the coordinated contractions of the muscle cells.

Link to Learning

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You can watch an excellent animation of the endomembrane system here. At the end of the animation, there is a short self-assessment.

Career Connection

CardiologistHeart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. This is primarily due to our sedentary lifestyle and our high trans-fat diets.

Heart failure is just one of many disabling heart conditions. Heart failure does not mean that the heart has stopped working. Rather, it means that the heart can’t pump with sufficient force to transport oxygenated blood to all the vital organs. Left untreated, heart failure can lead to kidney failure and failure of other organs.

The wall of the heart is composed of cardiac muscle tissue. Heart failure occurs when the endoplasmic reticula of cardiac muscle cells do not function properly. As a result, an insufficient number of calcium ions are available to trigger a sufficient contractile force.

Cardiologists (cardi- = “heart”; -ologist = “one who studies”) are doctors who specialize in treating heart diseases, including heart failure. Cardiologists can make a diagnosis of heart failure via physical examination, results from an electrocardiogram (ECG, a test that measures the electrical activity of the heart), a chest X-ray to see whether the heart is enlarged, and other tests. If heart failure is diagnosed, the cardiologist will typically prescribe appropriate medications and recommend a reduction in table salt intake and a supervised exercise program.

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