4.3: Eukaryotic Compartmentalization
One of the distinguishing features of eukaryotic cells is that they contain membrane-bound organelles—such as the nucleus and mitochondria—that carry out particular functions. Since biological membranes are only permeable to a small number of substances, the membrane around an organelle creates a compartment with controlled conditions inside. These microenvironments are often distinct from the environment of the surrounding cytosol and are tailored to the specific functions of the organelle.
For example, lysosomes—organelles in animal cells that digest molecules and cellular debris—maintain an environment that is more acidic than the surrounding cytosol, because its enzymes require a lower pH to catalyze reactions. Similarly, pH is regulated within mitochondria, which helps them carry out their function of producing energy.
Additionally, some proteins require an oxidative environment for proper folding and processing, but the cytosol is generally reductive. Therefore, these proteins are produced by ribosomes in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), which maintains the necessary environment. Proteins are often then transported within the cell through membrane-bound vesicles.
The genetic material of eukaryotic cells is compartmentalized within the nucleus, which is surrounded by a double membrane called the nuclear envelope. Small pores in the envelope control which molecules or ions can enter or leave the nucleus. For instance, messenger RNA (mRNA) exits the nucleus through these pores to take the genetic instructions encoded in the DNA to the ribosomes, where they can be translated into protein.
Organelles can also protect a cell by containing and neutralizing dangerous substances. For example, peroxisomes carry out oxidation reactions that produce hydrogen peroxide—which is toxic to cells—but they also contain enzymes that convert it into harmless oxygen and water. Therefore, compartmentalization allows eukaryotic cells to carry out a variety of different functions that would otherwise be incompatible in terms of their required environments or by-products produced.