The Effect of Temperature on Cell Membranes
By Stephanie Chandler; Updated March 13, 2018
A membrane surrounds every living cell, keeping the cell's interior separated and protected from the outside world. Many factors affect how this membrane behaves and temperature is one of the most important. Temperature helps determine what can enter or leave the cell and how well molecules found within the membrane can function. Temperatures that are too high or too low can seriously damage and, in the extreme temperature ranges, kill the cell through their effect on the cell's membrane.
What Makes a Cell Membrane?
A cell membrane is called a bilayer because it's made of two layers that face each other and surround the cell. Chemically, each layer is formed by fatty molecules called phospholipids. Each molecule has an end that repels water, called its head, and another end called the tail that repels water. The nature of the phospholipids in the membrane helps keep it fluid and semi-permeable, so that some molecules like oxygen, carbon dioxide and small hydrocarbons can move through it and enter the cell, while other molecules that might be harmful or unneeded by the cell are kept out.
A cell membrane also contains proteins, either on its inner or outer surface – called peripheral proteins – or embedded in the membrane and called integral proteins. Because the membrane is fluid and not rigid, these proteins can move within the membrane to serve the cell's needs and help keep it healt...