Scientists have a tough time visualizing the tiny hatchways that allow nutrients to pass into our cells, but a group of Purdue University biologists may have found the next best thing: a glimpse into the workings of the "motor" that opens and closes them.
This graphic illustrates the process by which a membrane protein opens and closes, as envisioned by Jue Chens research team at Purdue University. ABC proteins, which are the inner portion of a membrane protein, function like tiny tweezers and are powered by ATP, a chemical that animal cells use for energy transport. When the tweezers squeeze shut, the outer section of the membrane protein opens to reveal a small cavity that can hold a nutrient or other substance the cell requires from the outside. Once the nutrient is there, the cell uses water to signal the "tweezers" to relax, closing the membrane protein gate and capturing the nutrient. Lastly, the membrane protein releases the nutrient into the cells interior. (Purdue graphic/Chen labs)
A research team led by Jue Chen has clarified the connection between these minuscule gates – which are called membrane transport proteins – and the steps by which they use a cells energy to permit or deny materials entry into the interior of the cell from the outside world.
In what the team perceives to be a three-step process, cells feed chemical energy to a tiny machine called an ABC protein, which is the part of the membrane protein that connects it to the interior of the cell. These ABC proteins use the energy to bend the membrane protein into its open and closed positions, allowing the cell both to bring in nutrients and to flush out waste.
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