Plasma Membrane

The plasma membrane (also called the cell membrane) has several functions. For example, it allows only certain molecules to enter or leave the cell. It separates internal metabolic reactions from the external environment. In addition, the plasma membrane allows the cell to excrete wastes and to interact with its environment.

Membrane Lipids

The plasma membrane, as well as the membranes of cell organelles, is made primarily of phospholipids. Phospholipids have a polar, hydrophilic ("water-loving") phosphate head and two nonpolar, hydrophobic ("water-fearing") fatty acid tails. Water molecules surround the plasma membrane. The phospholipids line up so that their heads point outward toward the water and their tails point inward, away from water. The result is a double layer called a phospholipid bilayer, as shown in Figure 4-10. The cell membranes of eukaryotes also contain lipids, called sterols, between the tails of the phospho-lipids. The major membrane sterol in animal cells is cholesterol. Sterols in the plasma membrane make the membrane more firm and prevent the membrane from freezing at low temperatures.

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