Active Transport

In contrast to facilitated diffusion which does not require energy and carries molecules or ions down a concentration gradient, active transport pumps molecules and ions against a concentration gradient. Sometimes an organism needs to transport something against a concentration gradient. The only way this can be done is through active transport which uses energy that is produced by respiration (ATP). In active transport, the particles move across a cell membrane from a lower concentration to a higher concentration. Active transport is the energy-requiring process of pumping molecules and ions across membranes "uphill" against a gradient.

  • The active transport of small molecules or ions across a cell membrane is generally carried out by transport proteins that are found in the membrane.
  • Larger molecules such as starch can also be actively transported across the cell membrane by processes called endocytosis and exocytosis (discussed later).

Sodium-Potassium Pump

Carrier proteins can work with a concentration gradient (passive transport), but some carrier proteins can move solutes against the concentration gradient (from high concentration to low), with energy input from ATP. As in other types of cellular activities, ATP supplies the energy for most active transport. One way ATP powers active transport is by transferring a phosphate group directly to a carrier protein. This may cause the carrier protein to change its shape, which moves the molecule or ion to the other side of the membrane. An example of this type of active transport system, as shown inFigure below, is the sodium-potassium pump, which exchanges sodium ions for potassium ions across the plasma membrane of animal cells.

The sodium-potassium pump system moves sodium and potassium ions against large concentration gradients. It moves two potassium ions into the cell where potassium levels are high, and pumps three sodium ions out of the cell and into the extracellular fluid.

As is shown in Figure above, three sodium ions bind with the protein pump inside the cell. The carrier protein then gets energy from ATP and changes shape. In doing so, it pumps the three sodium ions out of the cell. At that point, two potassium ions move in from outside the cell and bind to the protein pump. The sodium-potassium pump is found in the plasma membrane of almost every human cell and is common to all cellular life. It helps maintain cell potential and regulates cellular volume. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that results in a misshapen chloride ion pump. Chloride levels within the cells are not controlled properly, and the cells produce thick mucus. The chloride ion pump is important for creating sweat, digestive juices, and mucus.

The Electrochemical Gradient

The active transport of ions across the membrane causes an electrical gradient to build up across the plasma membrane. The number of positively charged ions outside the cell is greater than the number of positively charged ions in the cytosol. This results in a relatively negative charge on the inside of the membrane, and a positive charge on the outside. This difference in charges causes a voltage across the membrane. Voltage is electrical potential energy that is caused by a separation of opposite charges, in this case across the membrane. The voltage across a membrane is called membrane potential. Membrane potential is very important for the conduction of electrical impulses along nerve cells.

Because the inside of the cell is negative compared to outside the cell, the membrane potential favors the movement of positively charged ions (cations) into the cell, and the movement of negative ions (anions) out of the cell. So, there are two forces that drive the diffusion of ions across the plasma membrane—a chemical force (the ions' concentration gradient), and an electrical force (the effect of the membrane potential on the ions’ movement). These two forces working together are called an electrochemical gradient, and will be discussed in detail in the chapter Nervous and Endocrine Systems.

Vesicles and Active Transport

Some molecules or particles are just too large to pass through the plasma membrane or to move through a transport protein. So cells use two other methods to move these macromolecules (large molecules) into or out of the cell. Vesicles or other bodies in the cytoplasm move macromolecules or large particles across the plasma membrane. There are two types of vesicle transport, endocytosis and exocytosis.

Endocytosis and Exocytosis

Endocytosis is the process of capturing a substance or particle from outside the cell by engulfing it with the cell membrane. The membrane folds over the substance and it becomes completely enclosed by the membrane. At this point a membrane-bound sac, or vesicle pinches off and moves the substance into the cytosol. There are two main kinds of endocytosis:

  • Phagocytosis or "cellular eating," occurs when the dissolved materials enter the cell. The plasma membrane engulfs the solid material, forming a phagocytic vesicle.
  • Pinocytosis or "cellular drinking," occurs when the plasma membrane folds inward to form a channel allowing dissolved substances to enter the cell, as shown in Figure below. When the channel is closed, the liquid is encircled within a pinocytic vesicle.

Transmission electron microscope image of brain tissue that shows pinocytotic vesicles. Pinocytosis is a type of endocytosis.

Mode of exocytosis at a synaptic junction, where two nerve cells meet. Chemical signal molecules are released from nerve cell A by exocytosis, and move toward receptors in nerve cell B. Exocytosis is an important part in cell signaling.

Exocytosis describes the process of vesicles fusing with the plasma membrane and releasing their contents to the outside of the cell, as shown in Figure above. Exocytosis occurs when a cell produces substances for export, such as a protein, or when the cell is getting rid of a waste product or a toxin. Newly made membrane proteins and membrane lipids are moved on top the plasma membrane by exocytosis. For a detailed animation on cellular secretion, see

Homeostasis and Cell Function

Homeostasis refers to the balance, or equilibrium within the cell or a body. It is an organism’s ability to keep a constant internal environment. Keeping a stable internal environment requires constant adjustments as conditions change inside and outside the cell. The adjusting of systems within a cell is called homeostatic regulation. Because the internal and external environments of a cell are constantly changing, adjustments must be made continuously to stay at or near the set point (the normal level or range). Homeostasis is a dynamic equilibrium rather than an unchanging state. The cellular processes discussed in this lesson all play an important role in homeostatic regulation. You will learn more about homeostasis in The Human Body chapter.

CK-12 Biology I book:
  • CK-12 Foundation, Barabara Akre, Jean Brainard, Niamh Gray-Wilson, Douglas Wilson
Last modified: Sunday, October 3, 2010, 8:52 PM