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Traffic. 2004 Apr;5(4):241-6.

Transmembrane asymmetry and lateral domains in biological membranes.

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Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, 13 rue Pierre et Marie 75005 Paris, France.


It is generally assumed that rafts exist in both the external and internal leaflets of the membrane, and that they overlap so that they are coupled functionally and structurally. However, the two monolayers of the plasma membrane of eukaryotic cells have different chemical compositions. This out-of-equilibrium situation is maintained by the activity of lipid translocases, which compensate for the slow spontaneous transverse diffusion of lipids. Thus rafts in the outer leaflet, corresponding to domains enriched in sphingomyelin and cholesterol, cannot be mirrored in the inner cytoplasmic leaflet. The extent to which lipids contribute to raft properties can be conveniently studied in giant unilamellar vesicles. In these, cholesterol can be seen to condense with saturated sphingolipids or phosphatidylcholine to form microm scale domains. However, such rafts fail to model biological rafts because they are symmetric, and because their membranes lack the mechanism that establishes this asymmetry, namely proteins. Biological rafts are in general of nm scale, and almost certainly differ in size and stability in inner and outer monolayers. Any coupling between rafts in the two leaflets, should it occur, is probably transient and dependent not upon the properties of lipids, but on transmembrane proteins within the rafts.

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