Like other microbodies, lysosomes are spherical organelles contained by a single layer membrane, though their size and shape varies to some extent. This membrane protects the rest of the cell from the harsh digestive enzymes contained in the lysosomes, which would otherwise cause significant damage. The cell is further safeguarded from exposure to the biochemical catalysts present in lysosomes by their dependency on an acidic environment. With an average pH of about 4.8, the lysosomal matrix is favorable for enzymatic activity, but the neutral environment of the cytosol renders most of the digestive enzymes inoperative, so even if a lysosome is ruptured, the cell as a whole may remain uninjured. The acidity of the lysosome is maintained with the help of hydrogen ion pumps, and the organelle avoids self-digestion by glucosylation of inner membrane proteins to prevent their degradation.
The discovery of lysosomes involved the use of a centrifuge to separate the various components of cells. In the mid-twentieth century, the Belgian scientist Christian Ren� de Duve was investigating carbohydrate metabolism of liver cells and observed that that the cells released an enzyme called acid phosphatase in larger amounts when they received proportionally greater damage in the centrifuge. To explain this phenomenon, de Duve suggested that the digestive enzyme was encased in some sort of membrane-bound organelle within the cell, which he dubbed the lysosome. After estimating the probable size of the lysosome, he was able to identify the organelle in images produced with an electron microscope.
Lysosomes are found in all animal cells, but are most numerous in disease-fighting cells, such as white blood cells. This is because white blood cells must digest more material than most other types of cells in their quest to battle bacteria, viruses, and other foreign intruders. Several human diseases are caused by lysosome enzyme disorders that interfere with cellular digestion. Tay-Sachs disease, for example, is caused by a genetic defect that prevents the formation of an essential enzyme that breaks down complex lipids called gangliosides. An accumulation of these lipids damages the nervous system, causes mental retardation, and death in early childhood. Also, arthritis inflammation and pain are related to the escape of lysosome enzymes.