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Protein Functions in the Human Body and in Cells

Updated on March 12, 2017
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Linda Crampton is a teacher with a first class honors degree in biology. She writes about human biology and the scientific basis of disease.

Fish is a great source of protein.
Fish is a great source of protein. | Source

Vital Chemicals

Proteins are vital components of our bodies. They form part of the body's structure and perform many essential functions, such as allowing us to move, distributing oxygen around the body, clotting blood when we're wounded, fighting infections, transporting substances into and out of cells, controlling chemical reactions, and carrying messages from one part of the body to another.

Protein molecules are made of chains of amino acids. Our bodies digest the proteins that we eat, converting them into individual amino acids that are absorbed into the bloodstream. Our cells then use these amino acids and ones that we make to produce the specific proteins that we need.

Good sources of protein in the diet include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, legumes or pulses (beans, lentils and peas), and nuts. Most nutritionists recommend that we eat lean meats and low fat dairy if these foods are part of our diet.

Red blood cells get their color from a protein called hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood.
Red blood cells get their color from a protein called hemoglobin, which transports oxygen in the blood. | Source

Proteins are found throughout the body. This article focuses on major ones in blood, muscle, and cell membranes. It also discusses signaling and structural proteins as well as enzymes.

Hemoglobin, Fibrinogen, and Albumin in Blood

Red blood cells contain a protein called hemoglobin, which gives the cells their color. Hemoglobin picks up oxygen from the lungs. As the red blood cells travel around the body, the hemoglobin releases oxygen to the tissue cells. These need oxygen to make energy from digested food and to produce substances that they need.

The liquid part of blood is called plasma. It contains a protein called fibrinogen, which is involved in the blood clotting process. When a blood vessel is broken, a series of chemical reactions convert fibrinogen into a solid protein called fibrin. The fibrin fibers form a mesh over the wounded area that traps escaping blood. The mesh and the trapped blood form the blood clot.

Albumin is another protein in blood plasma. It helps to keep water in the blood and to maintain the correct volume of liquid in the vessels. Albumin also transports bilirubin to the liver. Bilirubin is a waste substance made from the breakdown of hemoglobin in old and damaged red blood cells. The liver converts the bilirubin into a form that can be excreted.

B Cells and Antibodies

Antibodies and the Complement System

Proteins are important in our immune system, which fights infections. For example, blood contains antibodies, which are proteins made by a type of white blood cell called a B lymphocyte or a B cell. The antibodies fight invaders such as bacteria and viruses.

Certain proteins in blood and specific ones attached to the cell membrane form the complement system. This system has a number of functions in the immune system. Activated complement molecules cause the attraction of phagocytes—white blood cells that engulf and destroy invaders—when an infection is present. Complement molecules also cause lysis (bursting) of bacteria.

A cross section through skeletal muscle fibers and a nerve bundle
A cross section through skeletal muscle fibers and a nerve bundle | Source

Actin, Myosin, Myoglobin, and Ferritin in Muscle

Actin and myosin are proteins which exist as filaments in muscles. When calcium ions are present the filaments slide over each other, causing the muscle to contract.

Myoglobin is a red pigment in muscles that binds to oxygen. It releases the oxygen to the muscle cells when they need to produce energy.

Ferritin is a protein in cells that stores iron and releases it when it’s needed. Ferritin is found in the skeletal muscles and also in the liver, spleen, bone marrow, and other areas of the body. A small amount of ferritin is present in blood.

Structure of the Cell Membrane

A section of a cell membrane, showing the proteins embedded in and attached to the membrane
A section of a cell membrane, showing the proteins embedded in and attached to the membrane | Source

Cell Membranes

The outer layer of cells is called the cell membrane. The membrane is made of a double layer of phospholipids (the "phospholipid bilayer"), cholesterol molecules, and protein molecules.

Membrane proteins are classified into three categories.

  • Peripheral proteins are present at the surface of a membrane but may extend a short distance into the phospholipid bilayer. The bond between a peripheral protein and the cell membrane is temporary.
  • Integral proteins are not only present on the membrane surface but also penetrate the membrane. The bond between an integral protein and phospholipid is permanent.
  • Lipid-bound proteins are located entirely within the phospholipid bilayer and don't extend to either membrane surface. They are rarer than the other types of membrane proteins.

Cell Membrane Proteins From the Khan Academy

Functions of Membrane Proteins

The protein molecules in membranes have a variety of functions. Some form channels that allow substances to move through the membrane. Others carry substances through the cell membrane. Some membrane proteins act as enzymes and cause chemical reactions to take place. Others are receptors, which join to specific substances at the surface of the cell.

An example of a receptor in action is the joining of insulin to a receptor protein. Insulin is a protein hormone made by the pancreas. The union of the insulin and the receptor causes the membrane to become more permeable to glucose. This enables sufficient glucose to enter the cell, where it's used as a nutrient.

Another example of receptor activity is the binding of a neurotransmitter released by the end of a stimulated neuron (or nerve cell) to a protein receptor on the next neuron. This binding causing a nerve impulse to be produced in the second neuron and is the method by which nerve impulses travel from one neuron to another.

Some Biological Transport Mechanisms

Glycoproteins—proteins attached to carbohydrates—are found on the surface of cell membranes and have many functions, including acting as cell adhesion molecules to “stick” cells together.

From left to right, this photo shows a red blood cell, a platelet, and a T cell. The photo is taken with a scanning electron microscope.
From left to right, this photo shows a red blood cell, a platelet, and a T cell. The photo is taken with a scanning electron microscope. | Source

Signaling Proteins and Hormones

Cytokines are small proteins released by cells to communicate with other cells. They are often made in the immune system when an infection is present. The cytokines stimulate the immune system to produce T cells, also called T lymphocytes, which fight the infection.

Some hormones are protein molecules. For example, erythropoietin is a protein hormone made by the kidneys to stimulate red blood cell production in the bone marrow. HCG (Human Chorionic Gonadotropin) is a protein hormone that is produced by the embryo and by the placenta during early pregnancy. Its function is to maintain the correct levels of estrogen and progesterone in a woman’s body to support the continuation of the pregnancy. Pregnancy tests check for HCG in a woman’s urine or blood. If HCG is present the woman must be pregnant, since without an embryo or a placenta the hormone isn't made.

These are cells from a cow that have been stained to show the cytoskeleton. Blue = nucleus, green = microtubules, red = actin filaments
These are cells from a cow that have been stained to show the cytoskeleton. Blue = nucleus, green = microtubules, red = actin filaments | Source

Structural Proteins

A cell contains a network of protein filaments and tubules called the cytoskeleton. The cytoskeleton maintains the cell’s shape and allows its parts to move. Some cells have short hair-like extensions on their surface, called cilia. Other cells have one or more long extensions called flagella. Cilia and flagella are made of protein microtubules and are used to move the cell or to move fluids surrounding the cell.

Keratin is a structural protein found in our skin, hair, and nails. Collagen protein fibers are located in many parts of the body, including the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones. Collagen and another protein called elastin are often found together. Collagen fibers provide strength and elastin fibers provide flexibility. Collagen and elastin are found in the lungs, in the walls of blood vessels, and in the skin.

Meat is rich in protein. Digestive enzymes are needed to convert the protein molecules to amino acid molecules.
Meat is rich in protein. Digestive enzymes are needed to convert the protein molecules to amino acid molecules. | Source

Enzymes

Enzymes are chemicals that catalyze (speed up) the chemical reactions in the body, Without enzymes, the reactions would happen too slowly or wouldn't occur at all. Since a huge number of chemical reactions are happening all the time in our bodies, life would be impossible without enzymes.

Digestive enzymes break down the food that we eat, producing small particles that are absorbed through the lining of the small intestine. The particles enter the bloodstream, which transports them around the body to our cells. The cells use the digested food particles as nutrients.

The Induced Fit Model of Enzyme Activity

The substrates (reactants) join to the active site of an enzyme, enabling a chemical reaction to happen. The products that are made leave the enzyme.
The substrates (reactants) join to the active site of an enzyme, enabling a chemical reaction to happen. The products that are made leave the enzyme. | Source

The amino acid chains of a protein molecule are twisted, coiled, and folded into a variety of complex shapes. These shapes must be maintained or proteins can't function.

How Enzymes Work

Enzymes work by joining with the chemical or chemicals that are reacting (the substrate or substrates). A substrate molecule joins to a place on the enzyme molecule known as the active site. The two fit together like a key fits into a lock, so the description of enzyme action is commonly referred to as the lock and key theory. It's believed that in some reactions (or perhaps in most of them) the active site changes its shape slightly to fit the substrate, which is known as the induced fit model of enzyme activity.

Beans are a good source of protein for vegans and for everybody else.
Beans are a good source of protein for vegans and for everybody else. | Source

Essential Amino Acids and Complete Proteins

Our bodies can make some of the amino acids needed to make our body proteins, but we must obtain the others from our diet. The amino acids which we can make are called “nonessential” amino acids, while those that we can’t make are “essential” ones. The distinction between the two types is not always clear, however, since adults can make certain amino acids while children can’t.

A protein in our diet that contains all of the essential amino acids in adequate quantities is called a complete protein. Proteins from animal sources —meat, fish, eggs, and dairy foods—are complete proteins. Plant proteins are generally incomplete, although there are some exceptions, such as soybean protein. Since different plants lack different essential amino acids, by eating a variety of plant foods a person can obtain all the amino acids that he or she needs. Protein in some form is a vital part of our diet, since it enables our bodies to make essential chemicals for life.

References

Protein facts from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Information about proteins from Arizona State University

© 2010 Linda Crampton

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    • Nellieanna profile image

      Nellieanna Hay 6 years ago from TEXAS

      You've written about proteins in terms understandable to just about anyone. Well done. I've learned a few things about them I didn't know. Thank you for an informative article.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi Nellieanna. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad that you found the article useful.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Very informative! I understand the importance of proteins but you have really supplied some real information here!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Dolores. It's interesting to study proteins. They have so many different functions in our bodies.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

      This is very informative. Protein is very necessary. I know Americans probably eat way too much meat, but I don't think vegan is necessarily healthier.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, ologsinquito. I've heard nutritionists say that we eat too much meat. They often say that small quantities are good for us, though. Meat does contain some important nutrients. Thanks for the comment!

    • adevwriting profile image

      Arun Dev 22 months ago from United Countries of the World

      Good to know about the importance of protein in the human body. Deficiency of proteins such as dystrophin would lead to diseases such as Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. Voted up!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 22 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and for sharing the information, adevwriting. I appreciate the vote, too.

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