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Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002.

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Biochemistry. 5th edition.

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Many Common Features Underlie the Diversity of Biological Membranes

Biological membranes are sheetlike structures, typically from 60 to 100 Å thick, that are composed of protein and lipid molecules held together by noncovalent interactions. Membranes are highly selective permeability barriers. They create closed compartments, which may be entire cells or organelles within a cell. Proteins in membranes regulate the molecular and ionic compositions of these compartments. Membranes also control the flow of information between cells.

Fatty Acids Are Key Constituents of Lipids

Fatty acids are hydrocarbon chains of various lengths and degrees of unsaturation that terminate with a carboxylic acid group. The fatty acid chains in membranes usually contain between 14 and 24 carbon atoms; they may be saturated or unsaturated. Short chain length and unsaturation enhance the fluidity of fatty acids and their derivatives by lowering the melting temperature.

There Are Three Common Types of Membrane Lipids

The major classes of membrane lipids are phospholipids, glycolipids, and cholesterol. Phosphoglycerides, a type of phospholipid, consist of a glycerol backbone, two fatty acid chains, and a phosphorylated alcohol. Phosphatidyl choline, phosphatidyl serine, and phosphatidyl ethanolamine are major phosphoglycerides. Sphingomyelin, a different type of phospholipid, contains a sphingosine backbone instead of glycerol. Glycolipids are sugar-containing lipids derived from sphingosine. Cholesterol, which modulates membrane fluidity, is constructed from a steroid nucleus. A common feature of these membrane lipids is that they are amphipathic molecules, having hydrophobic and hydrophilic ends.

Phospholipids and Glycolipids Readily Form Bimolecular Sheets in Aqueous Media

Membrane lipids spontaneously form extensive bimolecular sheets in aqueous solutions. The driving force for membrane formation is the hydrophobic interactions among the fatty acid tails of membrane lipids. The hydrophilic head groups interact with the aqueous medium. Lipid bilayers are cooperative structures, held together by many weak bonds. These lipid bilayers are highly impermeable to ions and most polar molecules, yet they are quite fluid, which enables them to act as a solvent for membrane proteins.

Proteins Carry Out Most Membrane Processes

Specific proteins mediate distinctive membrane functions such as transport, communication, and energy transduction. Many integral membrane proteins span the lipid bilayer, whereas others are partly embedded in the membrane. Peripheral membrane proteins are bound to membrane surfaces by electrostatic and hydrogen-bond interactions. Membrane-spanning proteins have regular structures, including β strands, although the α helix is the most common membrane-spanning domain. Indeed, sequences of 20 consecutive nonpolar amino acids can be diagnostic of a membrane-spanning α-helical region of a protein.

Lipids and Many Membrane Proteins Diffuse Rapidly in the Plane of the Membrane

Membranes are structurally and functionally asymmetric, as exemplified by the restriction of sugar residues to the external surface of mammalian plasma membranes. Membranes are dynamic structures in which proteins and lipids diffuse rapidly in the plane of the membrane (lateral diffusion), unless restricted by special interactions. In contrast, the rotation of lipids from one face of a membrane to the other (transverse diffusion, or flip-flop) is usually very slow. Proteins do not rotate across bilayers; hence, membrane asymmetry can be preserved. The degree of fluidity of a membrane partly depends on the chain length of its lipids and the extent to which their constituent fatty acids are unsaturated. In animals, cholesterol content also regulates membrane fluidity.

Eukaryotic Cells Contain Compartments Bounded by Internal Membranes

An extensive array of internal membranes in eukaryotes creates compartments within a cell for distinct biochemical functions. For instance, a double membrane surrounds the nucleus, the location of most of the cell's genetic material, and the mitochondria, the location of most ATP synthesis. A single membrane defines the other internal compartments, such as the endoplasmic reticulum. Some compartments can exchange material by the process of membrane budding and fusion. As with all membranes, the proteins associated with these membranes determine the specific biochemical function. Specific amino acid sequences in the proteins direct these molecules to the appropriate compartment.

Key Terms

fatty acid









amphipathic molecule

lipid bilayer


integral membrane protein

peripheral membrane protein

hydropathy plot

lateral diffusion

fluid mosaic model

targeting sequence

receptor-mediated endocytosis

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, W. H. Freeman and Company.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22501