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Cell Biology
The World of Cells
Plasma Membrane
The Plasma Membrane
The plasma membrane (sometimes called the cell membrane or plasmalemma) forms the thin molecular surface of every cell.

It is made up of lipids, proteins and some carbohydrates in a flexible, dynamic and everchanging array. The plasma membrane acts as a selective barrier between the inside and the outside of the cell and controls the exchange of materials between cytoplasm and the surrounding liquid. It is almost impermeable to certain ions and molecules, and the cell uses specialized transport mechanisms to move molecules from one side to another.

Phospholipids are the major structural components of most membranes. These molecules form a bi-layer (a double-layer of material) on the surface of the cell with their long, hydrophobic hydrocarbon chains pointing inward to the center of the bi-layer and their hydrophilic phosphate groups facing outwards.

Within this bi-layer of lipid float various kinds of proteins, rather like ships in a lipid sea. Some proteins remain on the surface and are called extrinsic proteins, whereas intrinsic proteins are partially submerged or extend right through the phospholipid bi-layer.

Protein and lipid constituents of membranes are not fixed in any one location, but can move and locate themselves at different points on the cell surface as required. Some, having carbohydrate or polysaccharide molecules attached to them, are complex glycoprotein and glycolipid macromolecules that play roles in recognition between cells and act as receptors for molecules such as hormones.

The physical state of membranes is dynamic, and rarely static. For example, when a cell adds extra cholesterol to a membrane, this changes the fluidity and converts the membrane from a liquid-like state to a more viscous gel-like state. Components may be added or taken away as the cell changes, grows or becomes a specialist, and the modern picture of the cell membrane is a dynamic one of constant change, movement, modification and adaptation.

Figure legend: The thin molecular surface of every cell is a fexible, dynamic, and ever-changing array of lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates.

© 2001, Professor John Blamire