Because the ions are distributed unevenly between the intracellular and extracellular spaces, a potential difference, known as the membrane potential, is created at the cell membrane. This creates a negative charge in the interior of the cell relative to the extracellular space, the so-called resting potential. This potential difference can be measured with sensitive instruments and is about 60−80mV.
The reason for the negative potential inside the cell with respect to its surroundings lies in the differential distribution of ions between the intracellular and extracellular spaces. Thus, the intracellular potassium concentration is about 35 times greater than the extracellular concentration, while proteins are the preponderant anions inside the cell. Sodium ions dominate in the extracellular space, balanced on the negative side by chloride anions. The accumulation of potassium ions inside the cell is a specific activity of almost every cell and represents one of its most important active transport processes. This “ion pump” transports potassium ions into the cells and, to balance this, transports sodium ions out. It is therefore also called the sodium−potassium (Na+−K+) pump. It includes an ATP-splitting enzyme (sodium−potassium ATPase, Na+,K+-ATPase). This reaction liberates the energy required for ion transport. The cell membrane is impermeable to ions, so there are membrane pores (channels) forNa+, K+, and Cl−, but not for protein anions. During resting potential, the K+ channels are often open, but the Na+ and Cl− channels are mostly closed. Because of the concentration difference, the K+ ions have a tendency to diffuse outward. However, the diffusion of positively charged potassium ions out of the cell is limited by the negatively charged protein anions, which cannot cross the membrane because of their size. The diffusion of even a few potassium ions out of the cell leaves anions with the opposite (negative) charge (protein anions) on the inside of the cell membrane, so that the interior of the cell is negatively chargedwith respect to its surroundings. The resting potential is therefore also known as the diffusion potential. The diffusion of ions outwardthrough the membrane pores is independent of the Na+−K+ pump.
The energy-consuming ion pumps can be impeded or blocked by lack of oxygen (failure of ATP production) or by metabolic poisons (e. g., cyanide), leading to severe disturbances in the specific performance of a cell. The initiation and propagation of nerve or muscle cell excitation depends on brief membrane potential changes (action potentials) (see Chapter 3: Nerve Tissue).