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Plasma Membrane

Plasma Membrane

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The plasma membrane is a vital part of a cell's job as it helps to regulate what goes in and out of the cell. But, what exactly is it? In simple terms, the plasma membrane is like a barrier that separates the inside of the cell from the outside. It is made up of different parts that work together to keep the cell functioning properly. Understanding the structure and function of the plasma membrane is crucial to understanding how cells work. So, let's dive in and learn more about this important component!

What is the Definition of the Plasma Membrane?

The plasma membrane--also known as the cell membrane--is a selectively permeable membrane that separates the cell's internal contents from its outside environment. Cells of plants, prokaryotes, and some bacteria and fungi, have a cell wall bound to the plasma membrane outside the cell. Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane. The structure and components of the cell membrane are shown in Figure 1.

A detailed diagram of the cell membrane

A plasma membrane is a selectively permeable membrane that separates the cell's internal contents from its outside environment.  Selective permeability: allows some substances to pass through while blocking other substances.

What is the Structure of the Plasma Membrane?

Let's take a closer look at the structure of the plasma membrane.

Plasma Membrane Diagram: Fluid Mosaic Model

The fluid mosaic model is the most widely accepted model describing the structure and behavior of the cell membrane. According to the fluid mosaic model, the cell membrane resembles a mosaic: it has many components, including lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates that make up the membrane plane. These components are fluid, meaning they move freely and constantly slide past one another. Figure 2 is a simple diagram showing the fluid mosaic model.

The fluid mosaic model illustrates the cell membrane as a mosaic of protein molecules embedded and freely moving in a fluid bilayer of phospholipids

What are the Components of the Plasma Membrane?

The plasma membrane is mainly composed of lipids (phospholipids and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrates. In this section, we will discuss each component.

Lipids (Phospholipids and Cholesterol)

The plasma membrane is mostly composed of phospholipids, which are special types of lipids. These lipids are made up of glycerol, two fatty acid chains, and a phosphate-containing group. They are called amphipathic molecules because they have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. The hydrophilic head is made up of the phosphate group, which loves water. The hydrophobic tails are made up of fatty acids that hate water.

The phospholipids arrange themselves in two layers in the cell membrane, with the hydrophobic tails facing each other and the hydrophilic heads facing outwards. This is called a phospholipid bilayer. The bilayer creates a stable boundary between two water-based compartments. The hydrophobic tails stick to each other, forming the interior of the membrane, while the hydrophilic heads are exposed to fluids inside and outside the cell. Figure 3 illustrates this arrangement.

Understanding the structure and function of phospholipids is important for understanding how the plasma membrane works.

This diagram illustrates the phospholipid bilayer

Cholesterol is another lipid that is found in the membrane. It is composed of a hydrocarbon tail, four hydrocarbon rings, and a hydroxyl group. Cholesterol is embedded among the phospholipids of the membrane. It helps to maintain the fluidity of the membrane during temperature changes.

Proteins

While phospholipids make up most of the plasma membrane, proteins are the ones that determine most of its functions. These proteins are not randomly spread out in the membrane; they are often grouped together in patches to carry out similar tasks.

There are two main kinds of proteins embedded in the cell membrane:

Integral proteins are found in the hydrophobic core of the phospholipid bilayer. They can be either partially embedded within the hydrophobic core or span across the entire membrane, which are known as transmembrane proteins. Transmembrane proteins are the most abundant type of protein in the plasma membrane. Peripheral membrane proteins are usually attached to integral proteins or phospholipids. They are found on the surfaces inside and outside of the membrane and do not extend into the hydrophobic core of the membrane.

Membrane proteins carry out different functions. For instance, there are channel proteins that create a hydrophilic channel for ions or small molecules to pass through. Some peripheral membrane proteins are involved in cross-membrane transport and cell communication. Other proteins are responsible for multiple functions, including enzymatic activity and signal transduction. Neurotransmitter receptors, for example, are involved in signal transduction. These receptors are embedded in the plasma membrane, and when a neurotransmitter, such as glutamate, binds to a receptor, it sets off a chain of events that leads to neuronal excitation.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, such as sugars and sugar chains, are attached to proteins or lipids to help cells recognize each other. When carbohydrates are attached to proteins, the molecules are called glycoproteins. When carbohydrates are attached to lipids, the molecules are called glycolipids.

Glycoproteins and glycolipids are usually found on the extracellular part of the cell membrane. They are unique for each species, among individuals of the same species, and even among the various cells of an individual. The uniqueness of these molecules and their position on the surface of the plasma membrane enable them to function as cellular markers that allow cells to recognize each other.

For instance, the four human blood types—A, B, AB, and O—are designated based on the carbohydrate part of glycoproteins found on the surface of red blood cells.

Cell-to-cell recognition is the ability of the cell to distinguish one neighboring cell from another. It is critical to the survival of the organism. For example, cell-to-cell recognition is at work when the immune system rejects foreign cells. It also plays a role in sorting cells into different tissues and organs during the development of an embryo.

What is the Function of the Plasma Membrane?

The plasma membrane serves various functions depending on the type of the cell. These functions include structural support, protection, regulation of movement of substances into and out of the cell, and communication and cell signaling.

Structural Support and Protection

The cell membrane is a physical barrier separating the cytoplasm from the extracellular fluid. This allows activities (such as transcription and translation of genes or production of ATP) to occur inside the cell while minimizing the impact of the external environment. It also provides structural support by binding to the cytoskeleton.

The cytoskeleton is a collection of protein filaments that organize the cell's contents and gives the cell its overall shape.

Regulation of Substances Moving Into and Out of the Cell

The cell membrane controls the movement of molecules into and out of the cytoplasm. The semi-permeability of the cell membrane enables cells to block, allow, and expel different substances in specific amounts: nutrients, organic molecules, ions, water, and oxygen are allowed into the cell, while wastes and toxins are blocked from or expelled out of the cell.

Communication and Cell Signaling

The plasma membrane plays a crucial role in facilitating communication between cells. Proteins and carbohydrates in the membrane create a unique cellular marker that allows other cells to recognize it, and the membrane also has receptors that molecules bind to carry out specific tasks.

To summarize, the plasma membrane is a semi-permeable membrane that separates the cell's internal contents from its outside environment. Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane. The fluid mosaic model is the most widely accepted model describing the structure and behavior of the plasma membrane, which describes the plasma membrane as a mosaic of protein molecules embedded and freely moving in a fluid bilayer of phospholipids. The plasma membrane is mainly composed of lipids (phospholipids and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrates. The plasma membrane serves various functions, including structural support, protection, regulating substances moving into and out of the cell, and communication and cell signaling.

Plasma Membrane

What is plasma membrane?

The plasma membrane is a selectively permeable membrane that separates the cell's internal contents from its outside environment. 

What does the plasma membrane do?

The plasma membrane separates the cell's internal contents from its outside environment. It also serves various functions depending on the type of the cell including structural support, protection, regulation of substances moving into and out of the cell, and communication and cell signaling. 

What is the function of the plasma membrane?

The plasma membrane serves various functions depending on the type of the cell. These functions include structural support, protection, regulation of movement of substances into and out of the cell, and communication and cell signaling. 

What is the plasma membrane made of?

The plasma membrane is made of lipids (phospholipids and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrates.  

Do prokaryotic cells have a plasma membrane?

Yes, prokaryotic cells have a plasma membrane.

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