Phospholipids of the composition present in cells spontaneously form sheetlike phospholipid bilayers, which are two molecules thick. The hydrocarbon chains of the phospholipids in each layer, or leaflet, form a hydrophobic core that is 3-4 nm thick in most biomembranes. Electron microscopy of thin membrane sections stained with osmium tetroxide, which binds strongly to the polar head groups of phospholipids, reveals the bilayer structure (Figure 5-2). A cross section of all single membranes stained with osmium tetroxide looks like a railroad track: two thin dark lines (the stain-head group complexes) with a uniform light space of about 2 nm (the hydrophobic tails) between them.
The lipid bilayer has two important properties. First, the hydrophobic core is an impermeable barrier that prevents the diffusion of water-soluble (hydrophilic) solutes across the membrane. Importantly, this simple barrier function is modulated by the presence of membrane proteins that mediate the transport of specific molecules across this otherwise impermeable bilayer. The second property of the bilayer is its stability. The bilayer structure is maintained by hydropho-bic and van der Waals interactions between the lipid chains. Even though the exterior aqueous environment can vary widely in ionic strength and pH, the bilayer has the strength to retain its characteristic architecture.
Natural membranes from different cell types exhibit a variety of shapes, which complement a cell's function (Figure 5-3). The smooth flexible surface of the erythrocyte plasma membrane allows the cell to squeeze through narrow blood capillaries. Some cells have a long, slender extension of the plasma membrane, called a cilium or flagellum, which beats in a whiplike manner. This motion causes fluid to flow across the surface of an epithelium or a sperm cell to swim through the medium. The axons of many neurons are encased by multiple layers of modified plasma membrane called the myelin sheath. This membranous structure is elaborated by
► FIGURE 5-3 Variation in biomembranes in different cell types. (a) A smooth, flexible membrane covers the surface of the discoid erythrocyte cell. (b) Tufts of cilia (Ci) project from the ependymal cells that line the brain ventricles. (c) Many nerve axons are enveloped in a myelin sheath composed of multiple layers of modified plasma membrane. The individual myelin layers can be seen in this electron micrograph of a cross section of an axon (AX). The myelin sheath is formed by an adjacent supportive (glial) cell (SC). [Parts (a) and (b) from R. G. Kessel and R. H. Kardon, 1979, Tissues and Organs: A Text-Atlas of Scanning Electron Microscopy, W. H. Freeman and Company. Part (c) from P C. Cross and K. L. Mercer, 1993, Cell and Tissue Ultrastructure: A Functional Perspective, W. H. Freeman and Company, p. 137.]
► FIGURE 5-4 The faces of cellular membranes. The plasma membrane, a single bilayer membrane, encloses the cell. In this highly schematic representation, internal cytosol (green stipple) and external environment (purple) define the cytosolic (red) and exoplasmic (black) faces of the bilayer. Vesicles and some organelles have a single membrane and their internal aqueous space (purple) is topologically equivalent to the outside of the cell. Three organelles—the nucleus, mitochondrion, and chloroplast (which is not shown)—are enclosed by two membranes separated by a small intermembrane space. The exoplasmic faces of the inner and outer membranes around these organelles border the intermembrane space between them. For simplicity, the hydrophobic membrane interior is not indicated in this diagram.
, Outer Inner
Matrix - Intermembrane space
, Outer Inner
Matrix - Intermembrane space
— Plasma membrane Cytosol Exterior
Intermembrane space an adjacent supportive cell and facilitates the conduction of nerve impulses over long distances (Chapter 7). Despite their diverse shapes and functions, these biomembranes and all other biomembranes have a common bilayer structure.
Because all cellular membranes enclose an entire cell or an internal compartment, they have an internal face (the surface oriented toward the interior of the compartment) and an external face (the surface presented to the environment). More commonly, the surfaces of a cellular membrane are designated as the cytosolic face and the exoplasmic face. This nomenclature is useful in highlighting the topological equivalence of the faces in different membranes, as diagrammed in Figure 5-4. For example, the exoplasmic face of the plasma membrane is directed away from the cytosol, toward the extracellular space or external environment, and defines the outer limit of the cell. For organelles and vesicles surrounded by a single membrane, however, the face directed away from the cytosol—the exoplasmic face—is on the inside in contact with an internal aqueous space equivalent to the extracellular space. This equivalence is most easily understood for vesicles that arise by invagination of the plasma membrane; this process results in the external face of the plasma membrane becoming the internal face of the vesicle membrane. Three organelles—the nucleus, mitochondrion, and chloro-plast—are surrounded by two membranes; the exoplasmic surface of each membrane faces the space between the two membranes.
Was this article helpful?