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What is an Enterocyte?

By H. Colledge
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An enterocyte is a type of cell that absorbs water and nutrients from the digestive tract. As an example of what is called a columnar cell, it is tall and narrow in shape, with a "brush" border made of tiny protrusions which project into the space inside the gut. Enterocytes originate inside intestinal glands, or crypts, in the small intestine and colon. In the small intestine, they produce and secrete digestive enzymes, which bind to their brush borders and help break down sugars and proteins, making them smaller and easier to absorb. Enterocytes in the large intestine absorb water and electrolytes.

The wall of the small intestine is arranged into finger-like projections called villi. After being formed inside crypts at the bottom of the villi, enterocytes migrate all the way to the tips, maturing as they go. At the tips of the villi, cell death occurs and the enterocytes are sloughed off into the gut. The life cycle of an enterocyte lasts for only a few days, and in the small intestine the resulting rate of renewal of the lining is more rapid than for any other body tissue. In the colon, there are no villi, but there are crypts where enterocyte formation takes place.

Enterocytes are simple columnar epithelial cells, which are shaped like elongated boxes. As intestinal absorptive cells, they are found in both the large and small intestine. Each enterocyte has an oval nucleus situated in the lower part of the cell. At the top of the cell, the brush border, which is made of tiny protrusions called microvilli, greatly increases the surface area available for absorption of nutrients or water from the gut.

Digestive enzymes known as peptidases and disaccharidases are produced by each enterocyte. These attach themselves to the microvilli on the top of the cell, breaking down proteins and sugars from the gut into smaller particles that are more easily absorbed. In the colon, enterocytes absorb water and electrolytes, and although they also have microvilli on their upper surfaces, these do not contain digestive enzymes.

Substances pass from the gut into enterocytes and from there they move out into the fluid that surrounds the cells, known as interstitial fluid. An enterocyte has a number of active transport systems it uses to pump substances across its cell membrane and into the cell. Once they reach the interstitial fluid, nutrients are able to pass into tiny blood vessels called capillaries, which connect to the general blood circulatory system.

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Discussion Comments

By anon289046 — On Sep 02, 2012

Thank you for this explanation. This is very well written and clear enough for lay people like myself.

By bfree — On Jun 27, 2011

@ladyjane - I first heard of leaky gut syndrome back in med school. I think doctors actually refer to it as candidiasis or intestinal hyper-permeability.

Basically the cell lining of our gastrointestinal tracts are leak proof forming a very tight barrier and just as you described if toxins damage the lining then large molecules of food can pass through.

The food passing through is a form of nutritious protein that our body needs but because it wrongfully entered into the bloodstream our immune system thinks its a threat and attacks it.

This causes food allergies and if left untreated will usually lead to a variety of other ailments.

By ladyjane — On Jun 25, 2011

This is a fantastic article explaining what the enterocytes of the small intestines are and what their function is. Therefore I think this is as good a place as any to express my concerns over a worldwide condition called "leaky gut."

Leaky gut syndrome occurs when the enterocytes have been damaged and large spaces develop between the cells that allow bacteria, toxins and larger food particles to leak out into our bloodstreams.

This is a curable disease and can be treated at the onset but unfortunately it goes undiagnosed year after year affecting millions of people. Physicians don't provide testing nor do they even acknowledge that it even exits.

You can search the terms leaky gut or leaky gut syndrome to get more information and to find out how to prevent it.

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