Endoplasmic Reticulum (Rough and Smooth)

Quick look

Rough ER (RER) is involved in some protein production, protein folding, quality control and despatch. It is called ‘rough’ because it is studded with ribosomes

Smooth E R (SER) is associated with the production and metabolism of fats and steroid hormones. It is ‘smooth’ because it is not studded with ribosomes and is associated with smooth slippery fats.

To view a micrograph of ER interpreted using the Gridpoint cross-hairs device, click here.


Think of a cell as a “multitude of membranes” we said in an earlier section. This statement certainly applies to the endoplasmic reticulum an organelle found in eukaryotic cells.
About 50% of the total membrane surface in an animal cell is provided by endoplasmic reticulum (ER). The organelle called ‘endoplasmic reticulum’ occurs in both plants and animals and is a very important manufacturing site for lipids (fats) and many proteins. Many of these products are made for and exported to other organelles.

There are two types of endoplasmic reticulum: rough endoplasmic reticulum (rough ER) and smooth endoplasmic reticulum (smooth ER). Both types are present in plant and animal cells. The two types of ER often appear as if separate, but they are sub-compartments of the same organelle. Cells specialising in the production of proteins will tend to have a larger amount of rough ER whilst cells producing lipids (fats) and steroid hormones will have a greater amount of smooth ER.

Part of the ER is contiguous with the nuclear envelope. The Golgi apparatus is also closely associated with the ER and recent observations suggest that parts of the two organelles, i.e. the ER and the Golgi complex, are so close that some chemical products probably pass directly between them instead of being packaged into vesicles (droplets enclosed within a membrane) and transported to them through the cytoplasm


This is an extensive organelle composed of greatly convoluted but flattish sealed sacs, which are contiguous with the nuclear membrane. It is called ‘rough’ endoplasmic reticulum because it is studded on its outer surface (the surface in contact with the cytosol) with ribosomes. These are called membrane bound ribosomes and are firmly attached to the outer cytosolic side of the ER About 13 million ribosomes are present on the RER in the average liver cell. Rough ER is found throughout the cell but the density is higher near the nucleus and the Golgi apparatus.

Ribosomes on the rough endoplasmic reticulum are called ‘membrane bound’ and are responsible for the assembly of many proteins. This process is called translation. Certain cells of the pancreas and digestive tract produce a high volume of protein as enzymes. Many of the proteins are produced in quantity in the cells of the pancreas and the digestive tract and function as digestive enzymes.

The rough ER working with membrane bound ribosomes takes polypeptides and amino acids from the cytosol and continues protein assembly including, at an early stage, recognising a ‘destination label’ attached to each of them. Proteins are produced for the plasma membrane, Golgi apparatus, secretory vesicles, plant vacuoles, lysosomes, endosomes and the endoplasmic reticulum itself. Some of the proteins are delivered into the lumen or space inside the ER whilst others are processed within the ER membrane itself. In the lumen some proteins have sugar groups added to them to form glycoproteins. Some have metal groups added to them. It is in the rough ER for example that four polypeptide chains are brought together to form haemoglobin.

Protein folding unit
It is in the lumen of the rough ER that proteins are folded to produce the highly important biochemical architecture which will provide ‘lock and key’ and other recognition and linking sites.

Protein quality control section
It is also in the lumen that an amazing process of quality control checking is carried out. Proteins are subjected to a quality control check and any that are found to be incorrectly formed or incorrectly folded are rejected. These rejects are stored in the lumen or sent for recycling for eventual breakdown to amino acids. A type of emphysema (a lung problem) is caused by the ER quality control section continually rejecting an incorrectly folded protein. The protein is wrongly folded as a result of receiving an altered genetic message. The required protein is never exported from the lumen of rough ER. Research into protein structure failures relating to HIV are also focusing on reactions in the ER.

Rigorous quality control plays a part in cystic fibrosis
A form of cystic fibrosis is caused by a missing single amino acid, phenylanaline, in a particular position in the protein construction. The protein might work well without the amino acid but the very exacting service provided by the quality control section spots the error and rejects the protein retaining it in the lumen of the rough ER. In this case the customer (the person with cystic fibrosis) loses out completely due to high standards when a slightly poorer product would have been better than no product at all.

From Rough ER to Golgi
In most cases proteins are transferred to the Golgi apparatus for ‘finishing’. They are conveyed in vesicles or possibly directly between the ER and Golgi surfaces. After ‘finishing’ they are delivered to specific locations.


Smooth ER is more tubular than rough ER and forms an interconnecting network sub-compartment of ER. It is found fairly evenly distributed throughout the cytoplasm.
It is not studded with ribosomes hence ‘smooth’ ER.
Smooth ER is devoted almost exclusively to the manufacture of lipids and in some cases to the metabolism of them and associated products. In liver cells for example smooth ER enables glycogen that is stored as granules on the external surface of smooth ER to be broken down to glucose. Smooth ER is also involved in the production of steroid hormones in the adrenal cortex and endocrine glands.

Smooth ER – the detox stop
Smooth ER also plays a large part in detoxifying a number of organic chemicals converting them to safer water-soluble products.
Large amounts of smooth ER are found in liver cells where one of its main functions is to detoxify products of natural metabolism and to endeavour to detoxify overloads of ethanol derived from excess alcoholic drinking and also barbiturates from drug overdose. To assist with this, smooth ER can double its surface area within a few days, returning to its normal size when the assault has subsided.

The contraction of muscle cells is triggered by the orderly release of calcium ions. These ions are released from the smooth endoplasmic reticulum.


  • Endoplasmic reticulum is an organelle found in both eukaryotic animal and plant cells. It often appears as two interconnected sub-compartments, namely rough ER and smooth ER. Both types consist of membrane enclosed, interconnected flattened tubes.
  • The rough ER, studded with millions of membrane bound ribosomes, is involved with the production, folding, quality control and despatch of some proteins.
  • Smooth ER is largely associated with lipid (fat) manufacture and metabolism and steroid production hormone production. It also has a detoxification function.

Amended 19.11.15  DA.