Getting around the cell: physical transport in the intracellular world

Phys Biol. 2020 Oct 13;17(6):061003. doi: 10.1088/1478-3975/aba5e5.


Eukaryotic cells face the challenging task of transporting a variety of particles through the complex intracellular milieu in order to deliver, distribute, and mix the many components that support cell function. In this review, we explore the biological objectives and physical mechanisms of intracellular transport. Our focus is on cytoplasmic and intra-organelle transport at the whole-cell scale. We outline several key biological functions that depend on physically transporting components across the cell, including the delivery of secreted proteins, support of cell growth and repair, propagation of intracellular signals, establishment of organelle contacts, and spatial organization of metabolic gradients. We then review the three primary physical modes of transport in eukaryotic cells: diffusive motion, motor-driven transport, and advection by cytoplasmic flow. For each mechanism, we identify the main factors that determine speed and directionality. We also highlight the efficiency of each transport mode in fulfilling various key objectives of transport, such as particle mixing, directed delivery, and rapid target search. Taken together, the interplay of diffusion, molecular motors, and flows supports the intracellular transport needs that underlie a broad variety of biological phenomena.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Transport*
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism*
  • Organelles / metabolism*