Components and Structure

Components of Plasma Membranes

The plasma membrane protects the cell from its external environment, mediates cellular transport, and transmits cellular signals.

Learning Objectives

Describe the function and components of the plasma membrane

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The principal components of the plasma membrane are lipids ( phospholipids and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrates.
  • The plasma membrane protects intracellular components from the extracellular environment.
  • The plasma membrane mediates cellular processes by regulating the materials that enter and exit the cell.
  • The plasma membrane carries markers that allow cells to recognize one another and can transmit signals to other cells via receptors.

Key Terms

  • plasma membrane: The semipermeable barrier that surrounds the cytoplasm of a cell.
  • receptor: A protein on a cell wall that binds with specific molecules so that they can be absorbed into the cell.

Structure of Plasma Membranes

The plasma membrane (also known as the cell membrane or cytoplasmic membrane) is a biological membrane that separates the interior of a cell from its outside environment.

The primary function of the plasma membrane is to protect the cell from its surroundings. Composed of a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins, the plasma membrane is selectively permeable to ions and organic molecules and regulates the movement of substances in and out of cells. Plasma membranes must be very flexible in order to allow certain cells, such as red blood cells and white blood cells, to change shape as they pass through narrow capillaries.

The plasma membrane also plays a role in anchoring the cytoskeleton to provide shape to the cell, and in attaching to the extracellular matrix and other cells to help group cells together to form tissues. The membrane also maintains the cell potential.

In short, if the cell is represented by a castle, the plasma membrane is the wall that provides structure for the buildings inside the wall, regulates which people leave and enter the castle, and conveys messages to and from neighboring castles. Just as a hole in the wall can be a disaster for the castle, a rupture in the plasma membrane causes the cell to lyse and die.

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The plasma membrane: The plasma membrane is composed of phospholipids and proteins that provide a barrier between the external environment and the cell, regulate the transportation of molecules across the membrane, and communicate with other cells via protein receptors.

The Plasma Membrane and Cellular Transport

The movement of a substance across the selectively permeable plasma membrane can be either “passive”—i.e., occurring without the input of cellular energy —or “active”—i.e., its transport requires the cell to expend energy.

The cell employs a number of transport mechanisms that involve biological membranes:

  1. Passive osmosis and diffusion: transports gases (such as O2 and CO2) and other small molecules and ions
  2. Transmembrane protein channels and transporters: transports small organic molecules such as sugars or amino acids
  3. Endocytosis: transports large molecules (or even whole cells) by engulfing them
  4. Exocytosis: removes or secretes substances such as hormones or enzymes

The Plasma Membrane and Cellular Signaling

Among the most sophisticated functions of the plasma membrane is its ability to transmit signals via complex proteins. These proteins can be receptors, which work as receivers of extracellular inputs and as activators of intracellular processes, or markers, which allow cells to recognize each other.

Membrane receptors provide extracellular attachment sites for effectors like hormones and growth factors, which then trigger intracellular responses. Some viruses, such as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), can hijack these receptors to gain entry into the cells, causing infections.

Membrane markers allow cells to recognize one another, which is vital for cellular signaling processes that influence tissue and organ formation during early development. This marking function also plays a later role in the “self”-versus-“non-self” distinction of the immune response. Marker proteins on human red blood cells, for example, determine blood type (A, B, AB, or O).

Fluid Mosaic Model

The fluid mosaic model describes the plasma membrane structure as a mosaic of phospholipids, cholesterol, proteins, and carbohydrates.

Learning Objectives

Describe the fluid mosaic model of cell membranes

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The main fabric of the membrane is composed of amphiphilic or dual-loving, phospholipid molecules.
  • Integral proteins, the second major component of plasma membranes, are integrated completely into the membrane structure with their hydrophobic membrane-spanning regions interacting with the hydrophobic region of the phospholipid bilayer.
  • Carbohydrates, the third major component of plasma membranes, are always found on the exterior surface of cells where they are bound either to proteins (forming glycoproteins ) or to lipids (forming glycolipids).

Key Terms

  • amphiphilic: Having one surface consisting of hydrophilic amino acids and the opposite surface consisting of hydrophobic (or lipophilic) ones.
  • hydrophilic: Having an affinity for water; able to absorb, or be wetted by water, “water-loving.”
  • hydrophobic: Lacking an affinity for water; unable to absorb, or be wetted by water, “water-fearing.”

The fluid mosaic model was first proposed by S.J. Singer and Garth L. Nicolson in 1972 to explain the structure of the plasma membrane. The model has evolved somewhat over time, but it still best accounts for the structure and functions of the plasma membrane as we now understand them. The fluid mosaic model describes the structure of the plasma membrane as a mosaic of components —including phospholipids, cholesterol, proteins, and carbohydrates—that gives the membrane a fluid character. Plasma membranes range from 5 to 10 nm in thickness. For comparison, human red blood cells, visible via light microscopy, are approximately 8 µm wide, or approximately 1,000 times wider than a plasma membrane. The proportions of proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates in the plasma membrane vary with cell type. For example, myelin contains 18% protein and 76% lipid. The mitochondrial inner membrane contains 76% protein and 24% lipid.

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The Components and functions of the Plasma Membrane: The principal components of a plasma membrane are lipids (phospholipids and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrates attached to some of the lipids and some of the proteins.

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The fluid mosaic model of the plasma membrane: The fluid mosaic model of the plasma membrane describes the plasma membrane as a fluid combination of phospholipids, cholesterol, and proteins. Carbohydrates attached to lipids (glycolipids) and to proteins (glycoproteins) extend from the outward-facing surface of the membrane.

The main fabric of the membrane is composed of amphiphilic or dual-loving, phospholipid molecules. The hydrophilic or water-loving areas of these molecules are in contact with the aqueous fluid both inside and outside the cell. Hydrophobic, or water-hating molecules, tend to be non- polar. A phospholipid molecule consists of a three-carbon glycerol backbone with two fatty acid molecules attached to carbons 1 and 2, and a phosphate-containing group attached to the third carbon. This arrangement gives the overall molecule an area described as its head (the phosphate-containing group), which has a polar character or negative charge, and an area called the tail (the fatty acids), which has no charge. They interact with other non-polar molecules in chemical reactions, but generally do not interact with polar molecules. When placed in water, hydrophobic molecules tend to form a ball or cluster. The hydrophilic regions of the phospholipids tend to form hydrogen bonds with water and other polar molecules on both the exterior and interior of the cell. Thus, the membrane surfaces that face the interior and exterior of the cell are hydrophilic. In contrast, the middle of the cell membrane is hydrophobic and will not interact with water. Therefore, phospholipids form an excellent lipid bilayer cell membrane that separates fluid within the cell from the fluid outside of the cell.

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Phospholipid aggregation: In an aqueous solution, phospholipids tend to arrange themselves with their polar heads facing outward and their hydrophobic tails facing inward.

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The structure of a phospholipid molecule: This phospholipid molecule is composed of a hydrophilic head and two hydrophobic tails. The hydrophilic head group consists of a phosphate-containing group attached to a glycerol molecule. The hydrophobic tails, each containing either a saturated or an unsaturated fatty acid, are long hydrocarbon chains.

Proteins make up the second major component of plasma membranes. Integral proteins (some specialized types are called integrins) are, as their name suggests, integrated completely into the membrane structure, and their hydrophobic membrane-spanning regions interact with the hydrophobic region of the the phospholipid bilayer. Single-pass integral membrane proteins usually have a hydrophobic transmembrane segment that consists of 20–25 amino acids. Some span only part of the membrane—associating with a single layer—while others stretch from one side of the membrane to the other, and are exposed on either side. Some complex proteins are composed of up to 12 segments of a single protein, which are extensively folded and embedded in the membrane. This type of protein has a hydrophilic region or regions, and one or several mildly hydrophobic regions. This arrangement of regions of the protein tends to orient the protein alongside the phospholipids, with the hydrophobic region of the protein adjacent to the tails of the phospholipids and the hydrophilic region or regions of the protein protruding from the membrane and in contact with the cytosol or extracellular fluid.

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Structure of integral membrane proteins: Integral membrane proteins may have one or more alpha-helices that span the membrane (examples 1 and 2), or they may have beta-sheets that span the membrane (example 3).

Carbohydrates are the third major component of plasma membranes. They are always found on the exterior surface of cells and are bound either to proteins (forming glycoproteins) or to lipids (forming glycolipids). These carbohydrate chains may consist of 2–60 monosaccharide units and can be either straight or branched. Along with peripheral proteins, carbohydrates form specialized sites on the cell surface that allow cells to recognize each other. This recognition function is very important to cells, as it allows the immune system to differentiate between body cells (called “self”) and foreign cells or tissues (called “non-self”). Similar types of glycoproteins and glycolipids are found on the surfaces of viruses and may change frequently, preventing immune cells from recognizing and attacking them. These carbohydrates on the exterior surface of the cell—the carbohydrate components of both glycoproteins and glycolipids—are collectively referred to as the glycocalyx (meaning “sugar coating”). The glycocalyx is highly hydrophilic and attracts large amounts of water to the surface of the cell. This aids in the interaction of the cell with its watery environment and in the cell’s ability to obtain substances dissolved in the water.

Membrane Fluidity

The mosaic nature of the membrane, its phospholipid chemistry, and the presence of cholesterol contribute to membrane fluidity.

Learning Objectives

Explain the function of membrane fluidity in the structure of cells

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The membrane is fluid but also fairly rigid and can burst if penetrated or if a cell takes in too much water.
  • The mosaic nature of the plasma membrane allows a very fine needle to easily penetrate it without causing it to burst and allows it to self-seal when the needle is extracted.
  • If saturated fatty acids are compressed by decreasing temperatures, they press in on each other, making a dense and fairly rigid membrane.
  • If unsaturated fatty acids are compressed, the “kinks” in their tails push adjacent phospholipid molecules away, which helps maintain fluidity in the membrane.
  • The ratio of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids determines the fluidity in the membrane at cold temperatures.
  • Cholesterol functions as a buffer, preventing lower temperatures from inhibiting fluidity and preventing higher temperatures from increasing fluidity.

Key Terms

  • phospholipid: Any lipid consisting of a diglyceride combined with a phosphate group and a simple organic molecule such as choline or ethanolamine; they are important constituents of biological membranes
  • fluidity: A measure of the extent to which something is fluid. The reciprocal of its viscosity.

Membrane Fluidity

There are multiple factors that lead to membrane fluidity. First, the mosaic characteristic of the membrane helps the plasma membrane remain fluid. The integral proteins and lipids exist in the membrane as separate but loosely-attached molecules. The membrane is not like a balloon that can expand and contract; rather, it is fairly rigid and can burst if penetrated or if a cell takes in too much water. However, because of its mosaic nature, a very fine needle can easily penetrate a plasma membrane without causing it to burst; the membrane will flow and self-seal when the needle is extracted.

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Membrane Fluidity: The plasma membrane is a fluid combination of phospholipids, cholesterol, and proteins. Carbohydrates attached to lipids (glycolipids) and to proteins (glycoproteins) extend from the outward-facing surface of the membrane.

The second factor that leads to fluidity is the nature of the phospholipids themselves. In their saturated form, the fatty acids in phospholipid tails are saturated with bound hydrogen atoms; there are no double bonds between adjacent carbon atoms. This results in tails that are relatively straight. In contrast, unsaturated fatty acids do not contain a maximal number of hydrogen atoms, although they do contain some double bonds between adjacent carbon atoms; a double bond results in a bend of approximately 30 degrees in the string of carbons. Thus, if saturated fatty acids, with their straight tails, are compressed by decreasing temperatures, they press in on each other, making a dense and fairly rigid membrane. If unsaturated fatty acids are compressed, the “kinks” in their tails elbow adjacent phospholipid molecules away, maintaining some space between the phospholipid molecules. This “elbow room” helps to maintain fluidity in the membrane at temperatures at which membranes with saturated fatty acid tails in their phospholipids would “freeze” or solidify. The relative fluidity of the membrane is particularly important in a cold environment. A cold environment tends to compress membranes composed largely of saturated fatty acids, making them less fluid and more susceptible to rupturing. Many organisms (fish are one example) are capable of adapting to cold environments by changing the proportion of unsaturated fatty acids in their membranes in response to the lowering of the temperature.

In animals, the third factor that keeps the membrane fluid is cholesterol. It lies alongside the phospholipids in the membrane and tends to dampen the effects of temperature on the membrane. Thus, cholesterol functions as a buffer, preventing lower temperatures from inhibiting fluidity and preventing higher temperatures from increasing fluidity too much. Cholesterol extends in both directions the range of temperature in which the membrane is appropriately fluid and, consequently, functional. Cholesterol also serves other functions, such as organizing clusters of transmembrane proteins into lipid rafts.