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Insulin

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Biology

Insulin is a protein hormone produced in a wide array of organisms. Hormones are chemical messengers produced by glands of the endocrine system. They're key elements in the regulation of homeostasis in the body. They allow communication between a gland and organs spread across our body helping to regulate their activity and keeping us healthy! In the case of insulin, its action helps to regulate the levels of sugar in the blood. Insulin helps lower the concentration in the event of hyperglycemia by incentivizing glucose storage. Blood sugar is mainly glucose, and so insulin is said to be responsible for regulating blood glucose concentration levels. Insulin dysfunction can be involved in many disorders, including insulin resistance syndrome, diabetes, PCOS and insulinoma.

Hyperglycemia describes the physiological condition of high blood glucose levels. If you want to learn more about how this condition and others are regulated by hormones check out our article Endocrine System!

What is Insulin?

Insulin is one of the main hormones used to regulate blood glucose concentrations within the human body. It acts in concert with the hormone glucagon to maintain blood glucose homeostasis. The two hormones form a negative feedback loop, with insulin lowering blood sugar levels and glucagon raising them. Alternating production of the two hormones results in blood glucose concentrations bouncing up and down within a relatively narrow range on either side of the ideal homeostatic level, usually between 72-99 mg/dL in healthy, fasted individuals. Insulin's role in this cycle is shown in figure 1 below.

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas in response to elevated blood sugar levels, which causes blood sugar levels to lower by increasing glucose uptake by the skeletal muscle, liver and adipocytes.

Homeostasis is the maintenance of steady-state conditions in a biological system. Negative Feedback is a homeostatic self-regulation process whereby changes to a biological system are reversed and returned back to the previous optimal level. Read our article Negative Feedback to learn more about how these processes contribute to Homeostasis!

Insulin insulin function in lowering blood glucose levels to maintain homeostasis StudySmarter

Figure 1: Insulin and Blood Glucose Homeostasis. Ben Travis - StudySmarter Originals

Insulin is believed to have existed as far back as the first eukaryotic organisms and is now produced by virtually all vertebrate organisms, and many invertebrate organisms. The structure of this protein is so conserved that insulin from many species is effective in regulating human blood sugar levels albeit with mildly varying degrees of efficacy.

Insulin Function:

Insulin has a wide array of functions within the body, mainly centring around the lowering of blood glucose. When the pancreas detects increased blood glucose concentration, it begins to secrete insulin into the bloodstream. Once it enters the blood, insulin binds to receptors on the surface of several types of cells, mainly fat, muscle and liver cells. These receptors then trigger a cascade of chemical reactions which result in glucose being removed from the blood and stored in several ways. For short term storage of glucose, glucose is stored as glycogen in liver and muscle cells.

Glycogen is a branched polymer of glucose that forms dense granules within the cell. The branches wrap around a glycogenin protein which provides the starting point for the formation of the granule. This can be seen in the centre of figure 2 below.

Insulin the structure of glycogen StudySmarter

Figure 2: The structure of glycogen, with the glycogenin protein, coloured at the centre. Mikael Häggström, used with permission.

Insulin causes the formation of glycogen initially by triggering glycogenin to bind to glucose molecules using tyrosine residues. These chains are then elongated further by glycogen synthase, which forms further 1-4 glycosidic bonds between glucose molecules. Branching occurs when the glycogen branching enzyme transfers a small chain from the end of the glucose polymer to a point midway along another glucose branch.

The formed glycogen is then either used locally, as in the case of muscle cells or converted back into glucose and released back into the blood when blood glucose lowers, as in the case of the liver. For long-term storage, insulin acts upon fat cells. Here it triggers the uptake of glucose, followed by its conversion to fatty acids. It also increases the rate at which fatty acids are turned into triglycerides, the long term storage molecule used in fat cells. The combined action of glycogen and fatty acid synthesis lowers the blood glucose level back towards the ideal optimal level of 72-99 mg/dL in fasted individuals.

Insulin also increases the cellular respiration rate so that glucose consumption accelerates thus lowering its blood level. Check out our article Control of Blood Glucose Concentration to learn more!

Insulin Production:

Insulin is produced in beta cells found in the islet of Langerhans, the region of the pancreas that contains its hormone-producing cells. Insulin is formed in several stages within these cells.

Islets of Langerhans are cell clusters in the pancreas. They're roughly composed of 30% α-cells (alpha cells) and 60% β-cells (beta cells) with the remainder consisting of δ, γ and ε cells. The first two are responsible for blood sugar regulation, producing glucagon and Insulin respectively. The latter three produce somatostatin, pancreatic polypeptides and ghrelin.

Insulin can also be produced artificially as a result of genetic engineering. This allows for more efficient insulin production for the treatment of diabetes than production from animal organs. By extracting the gene for insulin from human DNA, and then inserting it into yeast or bacteria, scientists can grow large amounts of these organisms and then extract and purify the insulin!

Read our article Genetic Engineering to understand how insulin can be produced artificially by using bacterial cells!

The insulin gene is, as with all proteins, initially transcribed into mRNA. This mRNA is then translated into a protein known as preproinsulin, which then undergoes several stages of post-translational modifications. It is first taken into the rough endoplasmic reticulum, where a signal sequence is removed forming proinsulin. Further cleavage then results in three smaller peptides held together with disulphide bonds, along with a small connecting structure known as c-peptide. The Golgi apparatus then packages this proinsulin into insulin vesicles which cut out the c-peptide, forming the final secreted product, insulin!

Insulin Secretion

The insulin vesicles are then stored within the beta cells until needed. These vesicles release insulin into the blood via exocytosis. Glucose enters the cell and is converted to ATP, which then closes normally open K+ (potassium) channels in the membrane. This then causes a change in the charge of the cell membrane, opening Ca+ channels. The resulting calcium influx causes the fusion of the insulin vesicles with the cell membrane. This reaction stops once glucose levels lower to the point that insufficient ATP is produced to keep the K+ channels closed.

Insulin Structure

Insulin before undergoing its post-translational modifications is a 110 amine residue long protein. However, following the removal of various sections, its secreted form is 51 residues long. Before being secreted, insulin is stored in bundles of six within the granule, however, this splits into the active form of single units upon being released from the beta cells.

Insulin Diseases

Insulin is involved in many diseases that affect humans, stemming from either changes in the body's response to insulin or changes in the production of insulin. These diseases include:

  • Insulin Resistance Syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Insulinoma
  • PCOS

Insulin Resistance Syndrome and Symptoms

Insulin resistance syndrome, also known as metabolic syndrome, is commonly seen as a precursor to certain forms of diabetes, mainly type 2. While this was previously thought to be the extent of its effects, it has since been linked to many other diseases including:

  • Hypertension
  • Hyperlipidaemia
  • Fatty Liver Disease
  • Atherosclerosis

The mechanisms behind this syndrome and how it links to diabetes are poorly understood, however, it is believed that consistently elevated blood sugar levels result in an overproduction of insulin. Over time the cells within the body, particularly liver, fat and muscle cells, begin to resist or ignore the signals of insulin, requiring larger and larger amounts to be released in order for the same drop in blood glucose levels to occur.

Many factors in the modern lifestyle increase the risk of this syndrome occurring, including stress, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and ageing. This means that dietary and exercise changes can be an effective preventative, significantly lowering the chances of developing this syndrome. Presently, treatment for insulin resistance syndrome mainly centres around the aforementioned lifestyle changes along with treating the resultant disorders, rather than curing the insulin resistance.

Diabetes

Diabetes is a catch-all name for a variety of conditions, all centring around consistently elevated blood glucose levels, however, the main two are type-1 and type-2 diabetes.

In type-1 diabetes, the body's immune system attacks the beta cells within the pancreas, destroying them, thereby lowering or stopping insulin production. Type-2 diabetes is a continuation of insulin resistance, where the cells become so resistant to insulin that blood glucose remains consistently elevated. Insulin levels may be increased, decreased or normal, unlike in type-1. Treatment varies between the two types, with insulin always being necessary for type-1 but only sometimes necessary for type-2 as it can also be managed through the lifestyle changes mentioned above, combined with other oral antidiabetics.

Both types of diabetes can lead to numerous complications, mostly stemming from blood vessel damage caused by consistently elevated blood glucose levels. It increases the chance of many cardiovascular conditions such as stroke, coronary artery disease and peripheral artery disease. These all occur due to damage to major blood vessels within the body, however, damage to smaller blood vessels such as capillaries causes many other diseases such as diabetic retinopathy, nephropathy and neuropathy.

In the UK, diabetes causes 530 heart attacks and 680 strokes a week. These complications are the main cause of death in people with diabetes. Check out our article Diabetes to learn more!

Insulinoma

An insulinoma is a tumour in the pancreas formed from beta cells, which secrete insulin into the bloodstream as with regular beta cells. The symptoms caused by this stem from the fact that insulinoma insulin secretion is dysregulated, not responding properly to changes in insulin levels. This results in excessively low blood glucose (hypoglycemia) levels, which will eventually lead to loss of consciousness, seizures and potentially death. Proper blood sugar regulation is usually restored upon surgery to remove the tumour.

PCOS

PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome is a syndrome in which a woman's hormone levels are disordered, resulting in the production of excessive levels of male hormones. It is characterised by difficulty becoming pregnant, skipped menstruations, excess hair growth, cramps and many other conditions. PCOS can stem from insulin resistance, with heightened levels of insulin causing increased ovarian testosterone production.

Insulin - Key takeaways

  • Insulin is a protein hormone produced by beta cells in the pancreas.
  • It lowers blood sugar levels by increasing glucose uptake by muscles, the liver and adipose cells.
  • Insulin production and secretion are a key part of Blood Glucose Homeostasis.
  • It is involved in an array of diseases including diabetes, PCOS and insulinoma.

Insulin

Insulin is a protein hormone produced in the pancreas, which lowers blood sugar levels. 

Insulin is produced in the beta-cells located within the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas. 

Insulin lowers blood sugar levels by triggering increased glucose uptake by the liver, adipocytes and muscles. 

Insulin is a 51 residue long protein, stored in bundles of six before splitting into single units after secretion. Its function is to trigger increased uptake of glucose from the blood by the liver, muscles and adipocytes. 

The pancreas has at any given time around 200 units of insulin and secretes on average 30-50 units daily.

Final Insulin Quiz

Question

What type of hormone is insulin?

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Answer

Protein

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What compounds concentration does insulin regulate?

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Glucose

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What type of feedback system does insulin operate in?

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Negative

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What cells are the main stores of glycogen?

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Muscle

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Is glycogen a short-term or long-term storage molecule?

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Short-term

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What is the long-term storage molecule for glucose?

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Triglycerides

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How many amine residues does insulin have before undergoing post-translational modification?

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110

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What is the name of the small fragment excised when proinsulin is packaged into secretory vesicles?

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C-Peptide

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Where is insulin produced?

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Beta Cells

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How many insulin molecules form the stored form of insulin?

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6

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What ion triggers the release of the secretory vesicles from the beta cells?

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Calcium

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What organ contains the beta cells that produce insulin?

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Pancreas

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How many insulin molecules make up the secreted form of insulin?

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1

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How many main types of diabetes are there?

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1

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Consistently elevated blood sugar levels results in insulin what?

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Resistance

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Insulins counterpoint in the pancreas' two hormone system is?

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Glucagon

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The protein at the core of each glycogen molecule is?

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Glycogenin

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Diabetes is a catch-all term for disorders causing consistently elevated what?

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Blood glucose levels

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Insulin ______blood sugar levels?

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Raises

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The action of insulin contributes to maintaining what within the body?

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Homeostasis

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