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Facilitated diffusion (also known as facilitated transport or passive-mediated transport) is the process of spontaneous passive transport (as opposed to active transport) of molecules or ions across a biological membrane via specific transmembrane integral proteins. Being passive, facilitated transport does not directly require chemical energy from ATP hydrolysis in the transport step itself; rather, molecules and ions move down their concentration gradient reflecting its diffusive nature.
Facilitated diffusion is different from free diffusion in several ways. First, the transport relies on molecular binding between the cargo and the membrane-embedded channel or carrier protein. Second, the rate of facilitated diffusion is saturable with respect to the concentration difference between the two phases; unlike free diffusion which is linear in the concentration difference. Third, the temperature dependence of facilitated transport is substantially different due to the presence of an activated binding event, as compared to free diffusion where the dependence on temperature is mild.
Polar molecules and large ions dissolved in water cannot diffuse freely across the plasma membrane due to the hydrophobic nature of the fatty acid tails of the phospholipids that make up the lipid bilayer. Only small, non-polar molecules, such as oxygen and carbon dioxide, can diffuse easily across the membrane. Hence, all polar molecules are transported by proteins in the form of transmembrane channels. These channels are gated, meaning that they open and close, and thus regulate the flow of ions or small polar molecules across membranes, sometimes against the osmotic gradient. Larger molecules are transported by transmembrane carrier proteins, such as permeases, that change their conformation as the molecules are carried across (e.g. glucose or amino acids). Non-polar molecules, such as retinol or lipids, are poorly soluble in water. They are transported through aqueous compartments of cells or through extracellular space by water-soluble carriers (e.g. retinol binding protein). The metabolites are not altered because no energy is required for facilitated diffusion. Only permease changes its shape in order to transport metabolites. The form of transport through a cell membrane in which a metabolite is modified is called group translocation transportation.
Glucose, sodium ions, and chloride ions are just a few examples of molecules and ions that must efficiently cross the plasma membrane but to which the lipid bilayer of the membrane is virtually impermeable. Their transport must therefore be "facilitated" by proteins that span the membrane and provide an alternative route or bypass mechanism.
Various attempts have been made by engineers to mimic the process of facilitated transport in synthetic (i.e., non-biological) membranes for use in industrial-scale gas and liquid separations, but these have met with limited success to date, most often for reasons related to poor carrier stability and/or dissociation of the carrier from the membrane.