Carrier Protein


This illustration shows a carrier protein embedded in the membrane with an opening that initially faces the extracellular surface. After a substance binds the carrier, it changes shape so that the opening faces the cytoplasm, and the substance is released.
Some substances are able to move down their concentration gradient across the plasma membrane with the aid of carrier proteins. Carrier proteins change shape as they move molecules across the membrane. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)

OpenStax Biology 2e

Carrier protein is one type of protein embedded in the plasma membrane. This aptly named protein binds a substance and, thus triggers a change of its own shape, moving the bound molecule from the cell’s outside to its interior. Depending on the gradient, the material may move in the opposite direction. Carrier proteins are typically specific for a single substance. This selectivity adds to the plasma membrane’s overall selectivity. Scientists poorly understand the exact mechanism for the change of shape. Proteins can change shape when their hydrogen bonds are affected, but this may not fully explain this mechanism. Each carrier protein is specific to one substance, and there are a finite number of these proteins in any membrane. This can cause problems in transporting enough material for the cell to function properly. When all of the proteins are bound to their ligands, they are saturated and the rate of transport is at its maximum. Increasing the concentration gradient at this point will not result in an increased transport rate.

– What are a class of enzymes that catalyze the decomposition of ATP into ADP and a free phosphate ion or the inverse reaction?

An example of this process occurs in the kidney. In one part, the kidney filters glucose, water, salts, ions, and amino acids that the body requires. This filtrate, which includes glucose, then reabsorbs in another part of the kidney. Because there are only a finite number of carrier proteins for glucose, if more glucose is present than the proteins can handle, the excess is not transported and the body excretes this through urine. In a diabetic individual, the term is “spilling glucose into the urine.” A different group of carrier proteins, glucose transport proteins, or GLUTs, are involved in transporting glucose and other hexose sugars through plasma membranes within the body.

Channel and carrier proteins transport material at different rates. Channel proteins transport much more quickly than carrier proteins. Channel proteins facilitate diffusion at a rate of tens of millions of molecules per second; whereas, carrier proteins work at a rate of a thousand to a million molecules per second.

Symport carrier proteins facilitate the movement of polar molecules and/or ions on the extracellular or intracellular side of the cell membrane. Antiport carrier proteins facilitate the movement of polar molecules and/or ions in opposite directions across the cell membrane.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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