Cell membrane
Illustration of a Eukaryotic cell membrane

The cell membrane or plasma membrane is a biological membrane that separates the interior of all cells from the outside environment.[1] The cell membrane is selectively permeable to ions and organic molecules and controls the movement of substances in and out of cells.[2] It basically protects the cell from outside forces. It consists of the lipid bilayer with embedded proteins. Cell membranes are involved in a variety of cellular processes such as cell adhesion, ion conductivity and cell signaling and serve as the attachment surface for several extracellular structures, including the cell wall, glycocalyx, and intracellular cytoskeleton.



The cell membrane surrounds the cytoplasm of a cell and, in animal cells, physically separates the intracellular components from the extracellular environment. Fungi, bacteria and plants also have the cell wall which provides a mechanical support for the cell and precludes the passage of larger molecules. The cell 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 is differentially permeable and able to regulate what enters and exits the cell, thus facilitating the transport of materials needed for survival. The movement of substances across the membrane can be either passive, occurring without the input of cellular energy, or active, requiring the cell to expend energy in transporting it. The membrane also maintains the cell potential. The cell membrane thus works as a selective filter that allows only certain things to come inside or go outside the cell. To do so, the membrane employs a number of transport mechanisms:

1. Diffusion : Some substances (small molecules, ions) such as carbon dioxide (CO2), oxygen (O2), and water, can move across the plasma membrane by diffusion, which is a passive transport process.

2. Osmosis : Because the membrane acts as a barrier for certain molecules and ions, they can occur in different concentrations on the two sides of the membrane. Such a concentration difference across a semipermeable membrane can set up a osmotic flow for the solvent, in this case water. Water can thus be transported across the membrane by osmosis.

3. Mediated Transport : Nutrients such as sugars and materials of growth such as amino acid must enter the cell, and the waste of metabolism must leave. Such molecules are moved across the membrane by special proteins called transport proteins or permeases. Permeases form a small passageway through the membrane, enabling the solute molecule to cross the phospholipid bilayer. Permeases are usually quite specific, recognizing and transporting only a limited group of chemical substances, often even only a single substance.

4. Endocytosis : Endocytosis is the process in which cells absorb molecules by engulfing them. The plasma membrane creates a small deformation inward, called an invagination, in which the substance to be transported is captured. The deformation then pinches off from the membrane on the inside of the cell, creating a vesicle containing the captured substance. Endocytosis is a pathway for internalizing solid particles (cell eating or phagocytosis), small molecules and ions (cell drinking or pinocytosis), and macromolecules. Endocytosis requires energy and is thus a form of active transport.

5. Exocytosis : Just as material can be brought into the cell by invagination and formation of a vesicle, the membrane of a vesicle can be fused with the plasma membrane, extruding its contents to the surrounding medium. This is the process of exocytosis. Exocytosis occurs in various cells to remove undigested residues of substances brought in by endocytosis, to secrete substances such as hormones and enzymes, and to transport a substance completely across a cellular barrier. In the process of exocytosis, the undigested waste-containing food vacuole or the secretory vesicle budded from Golgi apparatus, is first moved by cytoskeleton from the interior of the cell to the surface. The vesicle membrane comes in contact with the plasma membrane. The lipid molecules of the two bilayers rearrange themselves and the two membranes are, thus, fused. A passage is formed in the fused membrane and the vesicles discharges its contents outside the cell.


Gram-negative bacteria have a plasma membrane and an outer membrane separated by a periplasmic space. Other prokaryotic species have only a plasma membrane. Prokaryotic cells are also surrounded by a cell wall composed of peptidoglycan (amino acid and sugar). Some eukaryotic cells also have cells walls, but none that are made of peptidoglycan.


Fluid mosaic model

According to the fluid mosaic model of S.J. Singer and G.L. Nicolson (1972), biological membranes can be considered as a two-dimensional liquid in which all lipid and protein molecules diffuse more or less easily.[3] Although the lipid bilayers that form the basis of the membranes do indeed form two-dimensional liquids by themselves, the plasma membrane also contains a large quantity of proteins, which provide more structure. Examples of such structures are protein-protein complexes, pickets and fences formed by the actin-based cytoskeleton, and potentially lipid rafts.

Lipid bilayer

Diagram of the arrangement of amphipathic lipid molecules to form a lipid bilayer. The yellow polar head groups separate the grey hydrophobic tails from the aqueous cytosolic and extracellular environments.

Lipid bilayers go through a self assembly process in the formation of membranes. The cell membrane consists primarily of a thin layer of amphipathic phospholipids which spontaneously arrange so that the hydrophobic "tail" regions are shielded from the surrounding polar fluid, causing the more hydrophilic "head" regions to associate with the cytosolic and extracellular faces of the resulting bilayer. This forms a continuous, spherical lipid bilayer. Forces such as Van der Waal, electrostatic, hyrdogen bonds, and noncovalent interactions, are all forces that contribute to the formation of the lipid bilayer. Overall, hydrophobic interactions are the major driving force in the formation of lipid bilayers.

Lipid bilayers have very low permeability for ions and most polar molecules.The arrangement of hydrophilic heads and hydrophobic tails of the lipid bilayer prevent polar solutes (e.g. amino acids, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, proteins, and ions) from diffusing across the membrane, but generally allows for the passive diffusion of hydrophobic molecules. This affords the cell the ability to control the movement of these substances via transmembrane protein complexes such as pores and gates.

Flippases and scramblases concentrate phosphatidyl serine, which carries a negative charge, on the inner membrane. Along with NANA, this creates an extra barrier to charged moieties moving through the membrane.

Membranes serve diverse functions in eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells. One important role is to regulate the movement of materials into and out of cells. The phospholipid bilayer structure (fluid mosaic model) with specific membrane proteins accounts for the selective permeability of the membrane and passive and active transport mechanisms. In addition, membranes in prokaryotes and in the mitochondria and chloroplasts of eukaryotes facilitate the synthesis of ATP through chemiosmosis.

Membrane polarity

Alpha intercalated cell

The apical membrane of a polarized cell is the surface of the plasma membrane that faces the lumen. This is particularly evident in epithelial and endothelial cells, but also describes other polarized cells, such as neurons.

The basolateral membrane of a polarized cell is the surface of the plasma membrane that forms its basal and lateral surfaces. It faces towards the interstitium, and away from the lumen.

"Basolateral membrane" is a compound phrase referring to the terms basal (base) membrane and lateral (side) membrane, which, especially in epithelial cells, are identical in composition and activity. Proteins (such as ion channels and pumps) are free to move from the basal to the lateral surface of the cell or vice versa in accordance with the fluid mosaic model.

Tight junctions that join epithelial cells near their apical surface prevent the migration of proteins from the basolateral membrane to the apical membrane. The basal and lateral surfaces thus remain roughly equivalent to one another, yet distinct from the apical surface.

Integral membrane proteins

The cell membrane contains many integral membrane proteins, which pepper the entire surface. These structures, which can be visualized by electron microscopy or fluorescence microscopy, can be found on the inside of the membrane, the outside, or may span the entire membrane. These may include integrins, cadherins, desmosomes, clathrin-coated pits, caveolaes, and different structures involved in cell adhesion. Integral proteins are the most abundant type of protein to span the lipid bilayer. They interact widely with hydrocarbon chains of membrane lipids and can be released by agents that compete for the same nonpolar interactions.

Peripheral membrane proteins

Peripheral proteins are proteins that are bounded to the membrane by electrostatic interactions and hydrogen bonding with the hydrophilic phospholipid heads. Many of these proteins can be found bounded to the surfaces of integral proteins on either the cytoplasimic side of the cell or the extracellular side of the membrane. Some are anchored to the bilayer through covalent bond with a fatty acid.

Membrane skeleton

The cytoskeleton is found underlying the cell membrane in the cytoplasm and provides a scaffolding for membrane proteins to anchor to, as well as forming organelles that extend from the cell. Indeed, cytoskeletal elements interact extensively and intimately with the cell membrane.[4] Anchoring proteins restricts them to a particular cell surface — for example, the apical surface of epithelial cells that line the vertebrate gut — and limits how far they may diffuse within the bilayer. The cytoskeleton is able to form appendage-like organelles, such as cilia, which are microtubule-based extensions covered by the cell membrane, and filopodia, which are actin-based extensions. These extensions are ensheathed in membrane and project from the surface of the cell in order to sense the external environment and/or make contact with the substrate or other cells. The apical surfaces of epithelial cells are dense with actin-based finger-like projections known as microvilli, which increase cell surface area and thereby increase the absorption rate of nutrients. Localized decoupling of the cytoskeleton and cell membrane results in formation of a bleb.


Cell membranes contain a variety of biological molecules, notably lipids and proteins. Material is incorporated into the membrane, or deleted from it, by a variety of mechanisms:

  • Fusion of intracellular vesicles with the membrane (exocytosis) not only excretes the contents of the vesicle but also incorporates the vesicle membrane's components into the cell membrane. The membrane may form blebs around extracellular material that pinch off to become vesicles (endocytosis).
  • If a membrane is continuous with a tubular structure made of membrane material, then material from the tube can be drawn into the membrane continuously.
  • Although the concentration of membrane components in the aqueous phase is low (stable membrane components have low solubility in water), there is an exchange of molecules between the lipid and aqueous phases.


Examples of the major membrane phospholipids and glycolipids: phosphatidylcholine (PtdCho), phosphatidylethanolamine (PtdEtn), phosphatidylinositol (PtdIns), phosphatidylserine (PtdSer).

The cell membrane consists of three classes of amphipathic lipids: phospholipids, glycolipids, and cholesterols. The amount of each depends upon the type of cell, but in the majority of cases phospholipids are the most abundant.[5] In RBC studies, 30% of the plasma membrane is lipid.

The fatty chains in phospholipids and glycolipids usually contain an even number of carbon atoms, typically between 16 and 20. The 16- and 18-carbon fatty acids are the most common. Fatty acids may be saturated or unsaturated, with the configuration of the double bonds nearly always cis. The length and the degree of unsaturation of fatty acid chains have a profound effect on membrane fluidity[6] as unsaturated lipids create a kink, preventing the fatty acids from packing together as tightly, thus decreasing the melting temperature (increasing the fluidity) of the membrane. The ability of some organisms to regulate the fluidity of their cell membranes by altering lipid composition is called homeoviscous adaptation.

The entire membrane is held together via non-covalent interaction of hydrophobic tails, however the structure is quite fluid and not fixed rigidly in place. Under physiological conditions phospholipid molecules in the cell membrane are in the liquid crystalline state. It means the lipid molecules are free to diffuse and exhibit rapid lateral diffusion along the layer in which they are present. However, the exchange of phospholipid molecules between intracellular and extracellular leaflets of the bilayer is a very slow process. Lipid rafts and caveolae are examples of cholesterol-enriched microdomains in the cell membrane.

In animal cells cholesterol is normally found dispersed in varying degrees throughout cell membranes, in the irregular spaces between the hydrophobic tails of the membrane lipids, where it confers a stiffening and strengthening effect on the membrane.[2]

Phospholipids forming lipid vesicles

Lipid vesicles or lisosomes are circular pockets that are enclosed by a lipid bilayer. These structures are used in laboratories to study the effects of chemicals in cells by delivering these chemicals directly to the cell, as well as getting more insight into cell membrane permeability. Lipid vesicles and liposomes are formed by first suspending a lipid in an aqueous solution then agitating the mixture through sonication, resulting in a vesicle. By measuring the rate of efflux from that of the inside of the vesicle to the ambient solution, allows researcher to better understand membrane permeability. Vesicles can be formed with molecules and ions inside the vesicle by forming the vesicle with the desired molecule or ion present in the solution. Proteins can also be embedded into the membrane through solubilizing the desired proteins in the presence of detergents and attaching them to the phospholipids in which the liposome is formed. These provide researchers with a tool to examine various membrane protein functions.


Plasma membranes also contain carbohydrates, predominantly glycoproteins, but with some glycolipids (cerebrosides and gangliosides). For the most part, no glycosylation occurs on membranes within the cell; rather generally glycosylation occurs on the extracellular surface of the plasma membrane.

The glycocalyx is an important feature in all cells, especially epithelia with microvilli. Recent data suggest the glycocalyx participates in cell adhesion, lymphocyte homing, and many others.

The penultimate sugar is galactose and the terminal sugar is sialic acid, as the sugar backbone is modified in the golgi apparatus. Sialic acid carries a negative charge, providing an external barrier to charged particles.


Proteins within the membrane are key to the functioning of the overall membrane. These proteins mainly transport chemicals and information across the membrane. Every membrane has a varying degree of protein content. Proteins can be in the form of peripheral or integral.

Type Description Examples
Integral proteins
or transmembrane proteins
Span the membrane and have a hydrophilic cytosolic domain, which interacts with internal molecules, a hydrophobic membrane-spanning domain that anchors it within the cell membrane, and a hydrophilic extracellular domain that interacts with external molecules. The hydrophobic domain consists of one, multiple, or a combination of α-helices and β sheet protein motifs. Ion channels, proton pumps, G protein-coupled receptor
Lipid anchored proteins Covalently bound to single or multiple lipid molecules; hydrophobically insert into the cell membrane and anchor the protein. The protein itself is not in contact with the membrane. G proteins
Peripheral proteins Attached to integral membrane proteins, or associated with peripheral regions of the lipid bilayer. These proteins tend to have only temporary interactions with biological membranes, and, once reacted the molecule, dissociates to carry on its work in the cytoplasm. Some enzymes, some hormones

The cell membrane plays host to a large amount of protein that is responsible for its various activities. The amount of protein differs between species and according to function, however the typical amount in a cell membrane is 50%.[6] These proteins are undoubtedly important to a cell: Approximately a third of the genes in yeast code specifically for them, and this number is even higher in multicellular organisms.[5]

The cell membrane, being exposed to the outside environment, is an important site of cell-cell communication. As such, a large variety of protein receptors and identification proteins, such as antigens, are present on the surface of the membrane. Functions of membrane proteins can also include cell-cell contact, surface recognition, cytoskeleton contact, signaling, enzymatic activity, or transporting substances across the membrane.

Most membrane proteins must be inserted in some way into the membrane. For this to occur, an N-terminus "signal sequence" of amino acids directs proteins to the endoplasmic reticulum, which inserts the proteins into a lipid bilayer. Once inserted, the proteins are then transported to their final destination in vesicles, where the vesicle fuses with the target membrane.


The cell membrane has different lipid and protein compositions in distinct types of cells and may have therefore specific names for certain cell types:

  • Sarcolemma in myocytes
  • Oolemma in oocytes
  • Historically, the plasma membrane was also referred to as the plasmalemma.


The permeability of a membrane is the ease with which molecules pass through it. These molecules are known as permeant molecules. Permeability depends mainly on the electric charge of the molecule and to a lesser extent the molar mass of the molecule. Due to the cell membrane's hydrophobic nature, electrically neutral and small molecules pass through the membrane easier than charged, large ones.

The inability of charged molecules to pass through the cell membrane results in pH parturition of substances throughout the fluid compartments of the body.

See also


  1. ^ Kimball's Biology Pages, Cell Membranes
  2. ^ a b Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. (2002). Molecular Biology of the Cell (4th ed.). New York: Garland Science. ISBN 0-8153-3218-1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/bv.fcgi?rid=mboc4.section.1864. 
  3. ^ Singer SJ, Nicolson GL (Feb 1972). "The fluid mosaic model of the structure of cell membranes". Science 175 (4023): 720–31. doi:10.1126/science.175.4023.720. PMID 4333397. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/175/4023/720. 
  4. ^ Doherty GJ and McMahon HT (2008). "Mediation, Modulation and Consequences of Membrane-Cytoskeleton Interactions". Annual Review of Biophysics 37: 65–95. doi:10.1146/annurev.biophys.37.032807.125912. PMID 18573073. http://arjournals.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.biophys.37.032807.125912. 
  5. ^ a b Lodish H, Berk A, Zipursky LS, et al. (2004). Molecular Cell Biology (4th ed.). New York: Scientific American Books. ISBN 0716731363. 
  6. ^ a b Jesse Gray, Shana Groeschler, Tony Le, Zara Gonzalez (2002). "Membrane Structure" (SWF). Davidson College. http://www.bio.davidson.edu/people/macampbell/111/memb-swf/membranes.swf. Retrieved 2007-01-11. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • cell membrane — n 1) a membrane of a cell esp PLASMA MEMBRANE 2) CELL WALL * * * plasma m …   Medical dictionary

  • cell membrane — n. a membrane surrounding a cell or cell part; esp., PLASMA MEMBRANE …   English World dictionary

  • cell membrane — cell membrane. См. плазмалемма. (Источник: «Англо русский толковый словарь генетических терминов». Арефьев В.А., Лисовенко Л.А., Москва: Изд во ВНИРО, 1995 г.) …   Молекулярная биология и генетика. Толковый словарь.

  • cell membrane — noun a thin membrane (a double layer of lipids) enclosing the cytoplasm of a cell; proteins in the membrane control passage of ions (like sodium or potassium or calcium) in and out of the cell all cells have a cell membrane • Syn: ↑cytomembrane,… …   Useful english dictionary

  • cell membrane — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms cell membrane : singular cell membrane plural cell membranes biology the thin outer layer that surrounds a cell and controls which substances go in and out of the cell …   English dictionary

  • cell membrane — cell′ mem brane n. cbl the semipermeable membrane enclosing the cytoplasm of a cell • Etymology: 1865–70 …   From formal English to slang

  • cell membrane — noun Date: 1852 a membrane of a cell; especially plasma membrane …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • cell membrane — noun The semipermeable membrane that surrounds the cytoplasm of a cell. Syn: plasma membrane …   Wiktionary

  • cell membrane — Biol. the semipermeable membrane enclosing the cytoplasm of a cell. [1865 70] * * * …   Universalium

  • cell membrane — see plasma membrane …   Dictionary of invertebrate zoology

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