Secretion – Definition, Mechanism, Importance

What is Secretion?

  • Secretion is a fundamental cellular process observed in various organisms, facilitating the active translocation of molecules from the cell’s interior to its exterior environment. This process predominantly involves the movement of molecules synthesized within the cell to the extracellular space. These molecules can range from functional proteins to a diverse array of non-proteinaceous entities, including steroids.
  • In a cellular context, secretion is distinct from excretion. While both processes involve the movement of substances, secretion pertains to the active transport of molecules, often serving specific functions, from the cell’s interior to its exterior. In contrast, excretion is primarily concerned with the removal of waste products or substances that are no longer needed by the cell or organism.
  • A classical mechanism underlying cellular secretion is through secretory portals present on the plasma membrane, known as porosomes1. These are permanent, cup-shaped lipoprotein structures embedded within the cell membrane. Secretory vesicles, which contain the molecules to be secreted, transiently dock and fuse at these porosomes, facilitating the release of their intra-vesicular contents into the extracellular environment.
  • In the realm of bacterial species, secretion assumes a pivotal role, particularly in the context of transporting or translocating effector molecules. These molecules can be proteins, enzymes, or even toxins, such as the cholera toxin produced by pathogenic bacteria like Vibrio cholerae. The process involves the movement of these effector molecules from the bacterial cytoplasm or cytosol to its exterior. This secretion mechanism is paramount for bacteria, enabling them to adapt, function, and survive within their native environments.
  • In conclusion, secretion is a vital cellular mechanism, ensuring the efficient transport of molecules from the cell’s interior to its external environment. Whether in eukaryotic cells or bacteria, this process plays a crucial role in maintaining cellular homeostasis and facilitating interactions with the surrounding environment.

Definition of Secretion

Secretion is the process by which cells actively transport molecules, often synthesized within the cell, to their exterior environment.

Purpose of Secretion

  • Cellular secretion is a fundamental biological process that plays a pivotal role in maintaining the physiological balance and functionality of an organism. This process involves the release of specific substances from cells, which can serve various purposes, ranging from intercellular communication to the facilitation of vital organ functions.
  • One of the primary purposes of secretion is to act as signaling molecules, either over short or long distances. For instance, neurons, the primary cells of the nervous system, release neurotransmitters. These chemical messengers transmit information between adjacent neurons, ensuring the seamless flow of neural signals. On a broader scale, certain glands, such as the pituitary gland, release hormones. These hormones are disseminated through the bloodstream and exert their effects on distant target organs. Such hormones influence a myriad of physiological processes, including those in the reproductive system, renal function, and metabolic pathways.
  • Furthermore, secreted substances can also have localized functions, essential for the proper functioning of specific organs or tissues. A quintessential example of this can be observed in the stomach. The gastric glands of the stomach comprise various cell types, each responsible for secreting a distinct component essential for digestion. Mucous cells produce mucus that acts as a lubricant, safeguarding the stomach lining. Parietal cells are responsible for the secretion of hydrochloric acid, which provides the acidic environment necessary for digestion. Meanwhile, chief cells release a precursor to pepsin, a protein-digesting enzyme. Collectively, these secretions work synergistically to ensure the efficient breakdown of ingested food.
  • In conclusion, cellular secretion is an intricate and vital process that underscores many physiological functions. Whether acting as signaling molecules or facilitating organ-specific functions, secretions play an indispensable role in the harmonious functioning of biological systems. The understanding of this process is quintessential for comprehending the complex interplay of cellular functions in an organism.

How Does Secretion Occur?

Cellular secretion is a multifaceted process that involves the transport of substances from the interior of a cell to its exterior. This process is governed by intricate pathways, each tailored to the type of cell and the specific substance being secreted. The fundamental step in secretion is the translocation of the secretory material across the cell membrane. Several prominent secretory pathways are elucidated below.


1. The ER-Golgi Secretory Pathway: The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) serves as the initial site for the synthesis of secretory products. Post-synthesis, these products are encapsulated within transport vesicles, lipid bilayer-coated spherical structures. These vesicles then journey to the Golgi apparatus. Here, the secretory products undergo modifications, are earmarked for export, and are subsequently packed into specialized secretory vesicles. This compartmentalization is pivotal, ensuring that proteins remain isolated from the cytosolic environment, which might induce unwanted chemical alterations.

Upon departing the Golgi apparatus, these secretory vesicles traverse along the cytoskeleton, reaching the cell membrane. Here, they engage with structures termed porosomes. Porosomes are conical fusion pores situated in diminutive pits on the cell membrane, with each pit housing multiple porosomes. The vesicles, upon docking at the porosomes, undergo swelling, leading to a pressure surge that aids in the expulsion of their contents extracellularly. The diameter of the porosome expands, facilitating the release. A fusion ring, constituted by various proteins, encircles the narrow segment of the porosome, playing a crucial role in merging the vesicle membrane with the cell membrane, a process termed exocytosis. In specialized cells like neurons, a distinct form of exocytosis, facilitated by specific fusion proteins, enables the swift and synchronized release of neurotransmitters.


2. Membrane Transporters: Certain proteins, rather than undergoing exocytosis, are directly transported across the cell membrane via transporter proteins. In this scenario, the proteins bypass vesicular packaging and are individually shuttled by dedicated proteins embedded in the cell membrane.

3. Lysosomal Secretory Pathway: Lysosomes, primarily recognized for their degradative functions, also partake in secretion. Specific cell types, such as pigment cells and hematopoietic stem cells, frequently employ the lysosomal secretory pathway. Analogous to secretory vesicles, lysosomes can merge with the cell membrane, discharging their contents. However, the fusion process involves a distinct set of proteins.


In summation, cellular secretion is a meticulously orchestrated process, with multiple pathways ensuring the precise and efficient transport of substances. Understanding these mechanisms is paramount for a comprehensive grasp of cellular physiology and intercellular communication.

Secretion In eukaryotic cells

Eukaryotic cells, encompassing human cells, exhibit a sophisticated system for secretion. This system ensures that proteins destined for extracellular release are synthesized, modified, and transported efficiently.


1. Synthesis and Initial Modifications: Proteins intended for external release are synthesized by ribosomes attached to the rough endoplasmic reticulum (ER). During synthesis, these proteins are translocated into the ER lumen. Here, they undergo glycosylation, and molecular chaperones assist in their proper folding. Any misfolded proteins are typically detected at this stage and are retrotranslocated to the cytosol via ER-associated degradation, where they are subsequently degraded by proteasomes. Vesicles containing correctly folded proteins then progress to the Golgi apparatus.

2. Further Modifications in the Golgi Apparatus: Within the Golgi apparatus, proteins experience further glycosylation modifications. Additional post-translational modifications, such as cleavage and functionalization, might also occur. These proteins are then encapsulated into secretory vesicles, which migrate along the cytoskeleton towards the cell periphery. Some proteins, like insulin, undergo further modifications within these vesicles.


3. Exocytosis: The secretory vesicles eventually fuse with the cell membrane at specialized structures called porosomes, releasing their contents extracellularly through a process termed exocytosis.

This entire sequence is meticulously regulated biochemically using a pH gradient. The cytosol has a pH of 7.4, the ER’s pH stands at 7.0, and the cis-Golgi’s pH is 6.5. Secretory vesicles exhibit pH values between 5.0 and 6.0, with some evolving into lysosomes, which possess a pH of 4.8.


Nonclassical Secretion Pathways: Certain proteins, such as FGF1, FGF2, and interleukin-1, lack a signal sequence and do not follow the classical ER-Golgi route. Instead, they utilize various nonclassical pathways. These unconventional pathways include:

  • Direct translocation of proteins across the plasma membrane.
  • Membrane blebbing.
  • Lysosomal secretion.
  • Release through exosomes originating from multivesicular bodies.

Furthermore, proteins can also be released via mechanical or physiological wounding and through transient oncotic pores in the plasma membrane.

Secretion in Human Tissues: Various human cell types function as secretory cells, equipped with a well-defined endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus. For instance, the gastrointestinal tract secretes digestive enzymes and gastric acid, the lungs produce surfactants, and sebaceous glands release sebum for skin and hair lubrication. Additionally, the Meibomian glands in the eyelids secrete meibum, providing lubrication and protection for the eye.

In summary, eukaryotic cells possess intricate mechanisms to ensure efficient secretion, playing a pivotal role in maintaining cellular communication and physiological balance.

Secretion In gram-negative bacteria

Gram-negative bacteria, like eukaryotes, possess intricate systems for secretion. These mechanisms are crucial for various bacterial functions, including pathogenesis.

1. Basic Secretion Pathways: Gram-negative bacteria utilize ATP binding cassette (ABC) type transporters, which are ubiquitous across all life domains. Some proteins are translocated across the cytoplasmic membrane via the SecYEG translocon, necessitating an N-terminal signal peptide on the protein. Alternatively, the twin-arginine translocation pathway (Tat) can be employed. Given the dual-membrane structure of gram-negative bacteria, secretion becomes topologically intricate.

2. Specialized Secretion Systems: Gram-negative bacteria boast at least six distinct secretion systems, many of which are pivotal for bacterial pathogenesis.

  • Type I Secretion System (T1SS): This chaperone-dependent system uses the Hly and Tol gene clusters. The protein to be secreted binds to HlyB on the membrane, which then interacts with HlyD, leading to protein excretion via a tunnel-like protein channel.
  • Type II Secretion System (T2SS): Proteins secreted via T2SS rely on the Sec or Tat system for initial transport into the periplasm. From there, they traverse the outer membrane through a complex of secretin proteins.
  • Type III Secretion System (T3SS): Resembling a molecular syringe, T3SS allows bacteria to inject proteins directly into eukaryotic cells. This system is particularly prevalent in pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella and Yersinia.
  • Type IV Secretion System (T4SS): Homologous to bacterial conjugation machinery, T4SS can transport both DNA and proteins. It was first identified in Agrobacterium tumefaciens and is also present in pathogens like Helicobacter pylori and Legionella pneumophila.
  • Type V Secretion System (T5SS): Also known as the autotransporter system, T5SS proteins utilize the Sec system to cross the inner membrane and then form a beta-barrel structure in the outer membrane.
  • Type VI Secretion System (T6SS): Discovered in pathogens like Vibrio cholerae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, T6SS is found in numerous proteobacterial genomes. It plays roles in pathogenesis, defense against predators, and inter-bacterial interactions.

3. Outer Membrane Vesicles (OMVs): Apart from the aforementioned multiprotein complexes, gram-negative bacteria can release material through the formation of outer membrane vesicles (OMVs). These nano-scale structures, rich in lipopolysaccharides, can contain virulence factors, have immunomodulatory effects, and can even adhere to and intoxicate host cells. While vesicle release is a general stress response, cargo protein loading appears to be selective.

In conclusion, the secretion mechanisms in gram-negative bacteria are multifaceted and play a pivotal role in their survival, interaction with the environment, and pathogenicity. These systems underscore the complexity and adaptability of bacterial cells in diverse environments.

Secretion In gram-positive bacteria

In the realm of microbiology, gram-positive bacteria, typified by genera such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus, have evolved specialized secretory systems to facilitate their survival and interaction with their environment. One of the notable systems in these bacteria is the accessory secretory system.

The Accessory Secretory System: The accessory secretory system in certain gram-positive bacteria, specifically in some species of Staphylococcus and Streptococcus, plays a pivotal role in the export of specific proteins. One of the primary cargoes of this system is the highly repetitive adhesion glycoproteins. These glycoproteins are integral to the bacterial cell’s ability to adhere to various surfaces, a critical factor in colonization and pathogenesis.

Adhesion glycoproteins possess repetitive sequences, which enhance their binding capacity. By exporting these proteins, the bacteria can effectively attach to host tissues, evade the host immune response, and establish infections. The accessory secretory system’s ability to handle and export these large, repetitive proteins underscores its importance in the bacterial life cycle.

In conclusion, while gram-positive bacteria like Staphylococcus and Streptococcus may not possess the multitude of secretory systems found in their gram-negative counterparts, the presence and functionality of the accessory secretory system highlight the adaptability and specialized nature of these organisms. The system’s role in exporting adhesion glycoproteins further emphasizes its significance in bacterial pathogenesis and interaction with the host.

Importance of Secretion

Secretion is a fundamental biological process that plays a pivotal role in the maintenance, regulation, and functioning of organisms. Here are some of the key reasons why secretion is crucial:

  1. Cellular Communication: Hormones, which are secreted by endocrine glands, act as messengers that regulate various physiological processes. For instance, insulin, secreted by the pancreas, regulates blood sugar levels.
  2. Digestive Process: The digestive system secretes enzymes and other substances that aid in the breakdown of food. For example, the stomach secretes hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes that help in the digestion of proteins.
  3. Protection and Defense: Many secretions serve as protective barriers. Mucus, secreted by mucous membranes, traps dust and microbes, preventing them from entering the body. Similarly, sweat secreted by sweat glands contains antimicrobial peptides that inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria.
  4. Reproduction: Secretions play a vital role in reproduction. For instance, seminal fluid, which carries sperm, provides them with nutrients and a medium to move.
  5. Regulation of Body Temperature: Sweat, secreted by sweat glands, helps regulate body temperature. As sweat evaporates from the skin’s surface, it cools the body.
  6. Lubrication: Secretions like synovial fluid in joints and tears in eyes act as lubricants, reducing friction and preventing wear and tear.
  7. Waste Elimination: Certain secretions help in the elimination of waste products. For example, the kidneys filter blood and produce urine, which is secreted and excreted, helping to maintain the body’s electrolyte balance and remove waste.
  8. Bacterial Interactions: In bacteria, secretion systems allow them to interact with their environment or hosts. For instance, some bacteria have specialized secretion systems to inject toxins into host cells, aiding in their pathogenicity.
  9. Sensory Functions: Some secretions play a role in sensory functions. For instance, the secretion of oils and pheromones can act as attractants or repellents in many species.
  10. Tissue Repair and Growth: Growth factors, which are secreted proteins, play a role in wound healing, tissue repair, and cellular growth.

In summary, secretion is integral to the survival and optimal functioning of organisms. It facilitates a myriad of processes, from digestion and defense to communication and regulation, underscoring its indispensable role in biology.


Which cellular organelle is primarily responsible for synthesizing proteins that are destined for secretion in eukaryotic cells?
a) Mitochondria
b) Lysosome
c) Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum
d) Golgi Apparatus

In gram-negative bacteria, how many specialized secretion systems have been identified?
a) Three
b) Four
c) Five
d) Six

Which secretion system in bacteria is often likened to a molecular syringe?
a) Type I
b) Type II
c) Type III
d) Type IV

In eukaryotic cells, where does the modification of glycosylation of proteins primarily occur?
a) Nucleus
b) Lysosome
c) Mitochondria
d) Golgi Apparatus

Which secretion system in gram-negative bacteria is homologous to the basal body in bacterial flagella?
a) Type I
b) Type II
c) Type III
d) Type IV

Which of the following is NOT a nonclassical secretion pathway in eukaryotic cells?
a) Direct protein translocation
b) Lysosomal secretion
c) Exocytosis
d) Release via exosomes

In which bacterial species was the Type VI secretion system first identified?
a) Escherichia coli
b) Vibrio cholerae
c) Staphylococcus aureus
d) Bacillus subtilis

The secretion of which hormone involves cleavage from its prohormone in secretory vesicles?
a) Glucagon
b) Thyroxine
c) Insulin
d) Cortisol

Which of the following is a primary function of secretion in gram-positive bacteria like Staphylococcus and Streptococcus?
a) DNA replication
b) Export of adhesion glycoproteins
c) ATP synthesis
d) Cell division

Which secretion system in gram-negative bacteria is associated with the formation of bacterial outer membrane vesicles?
a) Type I
b) Type II
c) Type V
d) Type VI


What is secretion?

Secretion refers to the process by which cells release substances, either by exocytosis or through specific channels, to serve various functions in the body or to be eliminated.

How is secretion different from excretion?

While both processes involve the release of substances from the cell, secretion typically involves substances that will be used by the body (like hormones or enzymes), whereas excretion involves the removal of waste products.

What role does the endoplasmic reticulum play in secretion?

The rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) is involved in the synthesis of proteins that are destined for secretion. Once synthesized, these proteins are sent to the Golgi apparatus for further modification and packaging before secretion.

Why is secretion important in gram-negative bacteria?

Gram-negative bacteria have complex secretion systems that allow them to transport proteins and other molecules across their double membranes. These secreted molecules can play roles in nutrient acquisition, defense mechanisms, and pathogenicity.

What is the Type III secretion system in bacteria?

The Type III secretion system (T3SS) is a complex protein structure in some bacteria that functions like a molecular syringe, allowing them to inject proteins directly into eukaryotic host cells.

How do cells regulate secretion?

Cells regulate secretion through various mechanisms, including signal transduction pathways, intracellular calcium levels, and feedback mechanisms. The nature and amount of substances secreted can change in response to internal and external signals.

What is the significance of secretion in the digestive system?

Secretion in the digestive system involves the release of enzymes, acid, mucus, and other substances that aid in the breakdown and absorption of food.

Are there disorders associated with abnormal secretion?

Yes, many disorders arise from abnormal secretion. For instance, hypersecretion of growth hormone can lead to gigantism, while its hyposecretion can result in dwarfism.

How do gram-positive bacteria handle secretion?

Gram-positive bacteria, like some Staphylococcus and Streptococcus species, utilize accessory secretory systems to export specific molecules, such as highly repetitive adhesion glycoproteins.

What are autotransporters in the context of secretion?

Autotransporters are a type of protein secretion system found in gram-negative bacteria. They are part of the Type V secretion system and allow the transport of specific ‘passenger’ proteins across the bacterial outer membrane.

Leave a Comment

Adblocker detected! Please consider reading this notice.

We've detected that you are using AdBlock Plus or some other adblocking software which is preventing the page from fully loading.

We don't have any banner, Flash, animation, obnoxious sound, or popup ad. We do not implement these annoying types of ads!

We need money to operate the site, and almost all of it comes from our online advertising.

Please add to your ad blocking whitelist or disable your adblocking software.