functions of smooth and rough endoplasmic reticulum

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The rough endoplasmic reticulum manufactures membranes and secretory proteins. The ribosomes attached to the rough ER synthesize proteins by the process of translation. In certain leukocytes (white blood cells), the rough ER produces antibodies. In pancreatic cells, the rough ER produces insulin. The rough and smooth ER are usually interconnected and the proteins and membranes made by the rough ER move into the smooth ER to be transferred to other locations. Some proteins are sent to the Golgi apparatus by special transport vesicles. After the proteins have been modified in the Golgi, they are transported to their proper destinations within the cell or exported from the cell by exocytosis.






The smooth ER has a wide range of functions including carbohydrate and lipid synthesis. Lipids such as phospholipids and cholesterol are necessary for the construction of cell membranes. Smooth ER also serves as a transitional area for vesicles that transport ER products to various destinations. In liver cells the smooth ER produces enzymes that help to detoxify certain compounds. In muscles the smooth ER assists in the contraction of muscle cells, and in brain cells it synthesises male and female hormones.

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This is an extensive organelle composed of greatly convoluted but flattish sealed sacs, which are contiguous with the nuclear membrane. It is called ‘rough’ endoplasmic reticulum because it is studded on its outer surface (the surface in contact with the cytosol) with ribosomes. These are called membrane bound ribosomes and are firmly attached to the outer cytosolic side of the ER About 13 million ribosomes are present on the RER in the average liver cell. Rough ER is found throughout the cell but the density is higher near the nucleus and the Golgi apparatus.

Ribosomes on the rough endoplasmic reticulum are called ‘membrane bound’ and are responsible for the assembly of many proteins. This process is called translation. Certain cells of the pancreas and digestive tract produce a high volume of protein as enzymes. Many of the proteins are produced in quantity in the cells of the pancreas and the digestive tract and function as digestive enzymes.

The rough ER working with membrane bound ribosomes takes polypeptides and amino acids from the cytosol and continues protein assembly including, at an early stage, recognising a ‘destination label’ attached to each of them. Proteins are produced for the plasma membrane, Golgi apparatus, secretory vesicles, plant vacuoles, lysosomes, endosomes and the endoplasmic reticulum itself. Some of the proteins are delivered into the lumen or space inside the ER whilst others are processed within the ER membrane itself. In the lumen some proteins have sugar groups added to them to form glycoproteins. Some have metal groups added to them. It is in the rough ER for example that four polypeptide chains are brought together to form haemoglobin.

Protein folding unit
It is in the lumen of the rough ER that proteins are folded to produce the highly important biochemical architecture which will provide ‘lock and key’ and other recognition and linking sites.

Protein quality control section
It is also in the lumen that an amazing process of quality control checking is carried out. Proteins are subjected to a quality control check and any that are found to be incorrectly formed or incorrectly folded are rejected. These rejects are stored in the lumen or sent for recycling for eventual breakdown to amino acids. A type of emphysema (a lung problem) is caused by the ER quality control section continually rejecting an incorrectly folded protein. The protein is wrongly folded as a result of receiving an altered genetic message. The required protein is never exported from the lumen of rough ER. Research into protein structure failures relating to HIV are also focusing on reactions in the ER.

Rigorous quality control plays a part in cystic fibrosis
A form of cystic fibrosis is caused by a missing single amino acid, phenylanaline, in a particular position in the protein construction. The protein might work well without the amino acid but the very exacting service provided by the quality control section spots the error and rejects the protein retaining it in the lumen of the rough ER. In this case the customer (the person with cystic fibrosis) loses out completely due to high standards when a slightly poorer product would have been better than no product at all.

From Rough ER to Golgi
In most cases proteins are transferred to the Golgi apparatus for ‘finishing’. They are conveyed in vesicles or possibly directly between the ER and Golgi surfaces. After ‘finishing’ they are delivered to specific locations.


Smooth ER is more tubular than rough ER and forms an interconnecting network sub-compartment of ER. It is found fairly evenly distributed throughout the cytoplasm.
It is not studded with ribosomes hence ‘smooth’ ER.
Smooth ER is devoted almost exclusively to the manufacture of lipids and in some cases to the metabolism of them and associated products. In liver cells for example smooth ER enables glycogen that is stored as granules on the external surface of smooth ER to be broken down to glucose. Smooth ER is also involved in the production of steroid hormones in the adrenal cortex and endocrine glands.

Smooth ER – the detox stop
Smooth ER also plays a large part in detoxifying a number of organic chemicals converting them to safer water-soluble products.
Large amounts of smooth ER are found in liver cells where one of its main functions is to detoxify products of natural metabolism and to endeavour to detoxify overloads of ethanol derived from excess alcoholic drinking and also barbiturates from drug overdose. To assist with this, smooth ER can double its surface area within a few days, returning to its normal size when the assault has subsided.

The contraction of muscle cells is triggered by the orderly release of calcium ions. These ions are released from the smooth endoplasmic reticulum.

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