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What is a cell membrane?

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Quick Answer

A cell membrane is a thin layer that acts as a barrier that separates an individual cell or a cellular compartment from other surrounding structures. This dynamic layer plays an essential part in the transport of ions and nutrients.

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What is a cell membrane?
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Full Answer

A cell membrane is a complex structure made of proteins, phospholipids, cholesterol, carbohydrates and several other compounds, all of which are held in place by non-covalent forces. Each cell membrane component serves one or more essential purposes. For example, the proteins act as pumps, gates or receptors, and the lipids create hydrophobic barriers that keep aqueous compartments separate. Cholesterol increases the strength and flexibility of the membrane while also making it less permeable to aqueous compounds.

The transport across cell membranes is an essential cell function, and it depends on the layered membrane structure and the nature of the molecule to be transported. Some molecules, such as oxygen and glucose, are transported through the membrane without requiring any energy, but ions, such as sodium and potassium, are only transported actively, which means that energy is required. The cell membrane is also capable of expelling part of its contents outside through a process called exocytosis or enveloping external molecules through endocytosis. Other functions of the cell membrane include providing shape to the cell by anchoring the cytoskeleton, maintaining the cell potential and sending molecular signals to other cells.

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