Like prokaryotes, eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane (Figure 8) made up of a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. A phospholipid is a lipid molecule composed of two fatty acid chains and a phosphate group. The plasma membrane regulates the passage of some substances, such as organic molecules, ions, and water, preventing the passage of some to maintain internal conditions, while actively bringing in or removing others. Other compounds move passively across the membrane.
The plasma membranes of cells that specialize in absorption are folded into fingerlike projections called microvilli (singular = microvillus). This folding increases the surface area of the plasma membrane. Such cells are typically found lining the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food. This is an excellent example of form matching the function of a structure.
People with celiac disease have an immune response to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The immune response damages microvilli, and thus, afflicted individuals cannot absorb nutrients. This leads to malnutrition, cramping, and diarrhea. Patients suffering from celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet.