Glycoprotein Function in the Cell Membrane

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  • 0:00 What Are Glycoproteins?
  • 1:12 Cell-to-Cell Recognition
  • 2:19 Cell Adhesion
  • 3:12 Receptor-Mediating…
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Kielhorn

Christine has a PhD in biomedical engineering.

When located in the cell membrane, glycoproteins help to identify, adhere to and communicate with the cell, among other functions. In this lesson, we'll discuss how glycoprotein completes these functions in the cell membrane.

What are Glycoproteins?

Glycoproteins are proteins that have sugar molecules attached to them. These sugar molecules are actually gathered into short chains, or oligosaccharides. The sugar molecules that make up oligosaccharides aren't just limited to the type of sugar you add to your coffee--there are actually many different types of simple sugar molecules. Just like the different letters of the alphabet can be joined together to create thousands of different words, these sugars can join together in different patterns to create thousands of different oligosaccharides. And, just like we use words to communicate, cells use oligosaccharides on the outside of their plasma membranes to communicate with other cells.

The cell uses glycoproteins embedded in the plasma membrane to get the oligosaccharides on the outside of the cell. Embedded proteins typically have a portion of the protein outside the cell, which is typically decorated with different oligosaccharides, depending on what message is being sent. Let's discuss a few examples of the types of communication that occur using glycoproteins in cell membranes.

Cell-to-Cell Recognition

Glycoproteins help cells recognize each other. The unique patterns of oligosaccharides on the cell surface can be read by corresponding glycoproteins on another cell. However, this process is different from how we read words. It's more like fitting a key into a lock; glycoproteins will often bind together if they're a match. This binding process communicates to the cell that it has found its match. This is what helps our immune system to recognize foreign invaders and then defend our body against them. The reverse is true, too. Viruses use glycoproteins to bind to and infect a host cell. Glycoprotein recognition also helps in reproduction. A sperm cell has special glycoproteins in its membrane that recognize special glycoproteins on the membrane of the egg, thereby allowing the sperm cell to bind to the egg and then fertilize it.

Another important example of glycoprotein recognition occurs in our blood. If you know your blood type, you know what special glycoproteins are present in your red blood cells to identify them.

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