A tour of the cell
A tour of the cell

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4.5 The endoplasmic reticulum

The nuclear membrane is continuous with an extensive membrane system known as the endoplasmic reticulum (ER, see Figure 1 and Figure 11), which extends through much of the cytoplasm and is the site of many activities, including the synthesis of lipids in the smooth endoplasmic reticulum and the synthesis of lysosomal proteins, cell membrane proteins and secreted proteins in the rough endoplasmic reticulum. Importantly, the interior of the ER is separate from the cytosol. The membranes of the ER form tubes and sacs, and depending on the plane in which a section cuts through the cell, the ER may therefore have the appearance of circular or elongated tubes, or parallel systems of membrane, or any shape in between, as illustrated in Figure 17.

Some parts of the endoplasmic reticulum appear smooth when viewed by EM and are hence named smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER). Smooth endoplasmic reticulum is involved in the production of phospholipids and steroids and also in the detoxification of substances such as drugs or ingested chemicals. Ingestion of large amounts of a toxic substance, such as a pesticide, results in an increase in the amount of SER in cells. Normally, however, most of the endoplasmic reticulum appears granular, being dotted with many ribosomes (Figure 17). This part of the endoplasmic reticulum is given the name rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER), and is the site where lysosomal proteins (mainly digestive enzymes), membrane proteins, and proteins that are destined for export from the cell are synthesised and processed.

Described image
Figure 17 (a) Electron micrograph showing rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) in a rat liver cell. The granular appearance is due to ribosomes that are attached to the endoplasmic reticulum membrane. (b) Schematic diagram of rough endoplasmic reticulum and smooth endoplasmic reticulum; note that the appearance can be as elongated or spherical tubes, or something in between.

What determines whether a particular mRNA molecule is translated by ribosomes that are free in the cytosol or by ribosomes that are attached to the RER? The answer lies again in the amino acid sequence of the protein being synthesised. In fact, translation of all eukaryotic mRNAs starts on 'free' ribosomes in the cytosol (Figure 18a), but if an mRNA encodes a protein that is destined for lysosomes, or to be secreted from the cell, or to be embedded in a cell membrane, the ribosome is rapidly redirected to the endoplasmic reticulum by a process known as cotranslational localisation. As soon as the beginning of the translated polypeptide (which is known as the N-terminus, or amino (NH2) terminus) starts to emerge from the free ribosome, a signal sequence for localisation to the RER, close to the N-terminus, is recognised by a protein complex called the signal recognition particle (SRP). Translation pauses, and the whole complex, including the ribosome, mRNA and partially translated polypeptide, is transported to the membrane of the RER. There, translation recommences and the growing polypeptide chain is simultaneously translocated across the membrane of the RER and starts to enter the RER lumen, the space inside the RER (Figure 18c).

Figure 18 An overview of protein localisation in eukaryotes. (a) During translation, all protein synthesis is initiated on a free ribosome in the cytosol. The N-terminus of the protein (denoted NH2 here) emerges from the ribosome. (b) In the absence of an RER localisation signal sequence, translation continues on the free ribosome and the polypeptide is released into the cytosol once translation is complete. It may then be post-translationally relocated to somewhere else in the cell. (c) The presence of a specific RER signal sequence at the beginning of the polypeptide directs binding of the whole ribosome-mRNA-polypeptide complex to the RER membrane. The polypeptide chain is synthesised across the RER membrane and into the RER lumen (cotranslational localisation). (d) Transmembrane proteins are retained in the RER membrane by alternating translocation start-transfer and stop-transfer sequences that thread the polypeptide through the membrane in sections.

One of two things may then happen: for some proteins, the translated polypeptide continues to enter the RER lumen, until finally the completed polypeptide is released inside the RER. These proteins usually pass on to the Golgi apparatus (see Section 4.7) and are eventually secreted from the cells or packaged into lysosomes. Alternatively, some proteins remain partly embedded within the RER membrane.

  • Thinking of how polypeptides are 'directed' to the RER, suggest a molecular mechanism that would determine whether a particular protein remains in the RER membrane, or enters the RER lumen.

  • A protein that is destined to remain in the RER membrane could have a special 'stop' sequence of amino acids, which remains in the membrane and thus prevents the protein from completely entering the lumen.

That is indeed what happens; a stop-transfer signal halts translocation and the protein remains embedded in the ER membrane. These proteins are either destined to be delivered to other membranes, usually the cell membrane, or remain in the ER, where they play a role in ER function. Some proteins, many of them receptor proteins, are 'multipass' transmembrane proteins. One example, rhodopsin, is a light-sensitive receptor protein involved in light perception in the retina of the mammalian eye. It has seven membrane-spanning sections or domains. A signal sequence at the N-terminus of the rhodopsin protein acts as a start-transfer signal which directs translocation of the growing polypeptide chain through the ER membrane until a stop-transfer signal is reached (Figure 18d). A second start-transfer signal sequence further along the growing polypeptide chain threads another section of the protein across the membrane until it reaches a second stop-transfer signal. Alternating start- and stop-transfer signals allow the rhodopsin protein to thread back and forth through the membrane seven times.

The proteins translated in the RER are then modified in different ways. One important modification that begins in the RER is protein glycosylation; that is, the addition of sugar residues; glycosylated proteins are known as glycoproteins (Figure 7). Some sugar residues can also serve as part of the 'address label', and are involved in protein targeting later on; others have different roles. The initial glycosylation of proteins occurs in the RER, through the action of enzymes that are embedded within the RER membrane. The modified proteins that are destined for export or to be delivered to lysosomes or the cell membrane, then pass from the RER to the Golgi apparatus (see Section 4.7), for further processing.

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