Cell Membrane Diseases: Types & Causes

Cell Membrane Diseases: Types & Causes
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  • 0:01 The Cell Membrane
  • 1:46 Genetic Diseases
  • 2:45 Infectious Diseases
  • 3:42 Diseases With Unknown Causes
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Cell membrane diseases often result in materials not being able to properly pass through cells. This lesson will discuss how different dysfunctions of the cell membrane can cause disease in a person.

The Cell Membrane

The cell membrane, also called the plasma membrane, separates the inside of the cell from the outside environment. It acts like the walls of your house that keep the inside and outside apart. However, your house walls don't always stay completely closed. You can open windows and doors to let people and things in and out. The cell membrane is similar - it can allow certain things to move into and out of the cell through various means.

The cell membrane is made up of a double layer of fats and phosphates as the foundation. This only allows small, uncharged molecules to get through. You can think of a leaky basement that only allows water to get in but stops bigger things like dirt, flies, and animals. Proteins in the membrane can act as tunnels for small things to go in and out of cells. This would be like a window with screens that can still let small fruit flies into your home. In order for larger molecules to move in and out, the cell uses special processes analogous to eating. Opening a door for a human to get into your home would be like these processes.

If the cell membrane is unable to do its job properly, this can cause the cell to stop working properly. If many cells have bad cell membranes, the disease can affect an entire organ or even the whole body. In many of these cell membrane diseases, proteins within the cell membrane don't transport materials properly. It is not necessarily that the membrane itself disappears, rather that certain parts don't work. Water, salt, and other nutrients can become imbalanced, leading to symptoms we'll discuss later.

Going back to the house analogy, if you removed the doors to your house, animals could move in and cause damage. If all the houses in a neighborhood lost their doors as well, the neighborhood would have major pest management concerns.

Genetic Diseases

Some membrane diseases are hereditary, meaning they are passed from parents to child. One example of a genetic disease that affects cell membranes is cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a recessive genetic disease. This means that both parents contribute one affected gene to the child. Cystic fibrosis is caused by a mutation in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) protein which helps move water and salt across the cell membrane.

In a patient with cystic fibrosis, the cells do not secrete enough water. When this happens in the lungs, it causes the mucus to become extremely thick. Symptoms include wheezing, persistent cough, and exercise intolerance. Besides making breathing difficult due to the buildup of mucus, it provides a good environment for germs to grow, making the patient prone to infection. Cystic fibrosis can also cause digestive problems, including lack of weight gain, constipation, and intestinal blockage.

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