All cells are surrounded by a layer of membrane that separates their internal environment (cytoplasm) from the external environment (exoplasm or extracellular matrix). Additionally, the organelles in cells, as explained earlier, are compartmentalized with the help of bio membranes, with similar chemical composition as that of the plasma membrane.

The membrane-enclosed organelles in the cytoplasm of cells (apart from the cell itself and the nucleus) are endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, lysosome, vacuole, chloroplasts and mitochondria. So it is very important for us to understand the structure and chemical composition of the biomembranes.

Cell Structure. Click on Image for Credit.

Biomembranes are made of three types of macromolecules (one in each post :):

  1. The Lipid Bilayer which is largely made of phospholipid; (we’ve discussed earlier) a glycerol molecule is joined to two fatty acid chains and the third site on the glycerol is linked to a hydrophilic phosphate group. Phospholipids are therefore amphipathic lipids, meaning they are partly water soluble and partly insoluble. This is because they have both hydrophobic (fatty acid tail) and hydrophilic (phosphate group) regions.

Phospholipid. Click on Image for Credit.

In order to understand the lipid bilayer structure of a cell, hypothetically imagine its development- If we try to dissolve one phospholipid in a water molecule, the hydrophilic head (which contains the phosphate group) will dissolve in the water, whilst the hydrophobic tail will remain outside the water. However, if two or more phospholipids get together, they will start forming a different structure; the heads will still dissolve in water, but the tails, rather than facing outwards, will face inwards towards each other shielding the water out.

Lipid Bilayer Formation. Click on Image for Credit.

This molecular character causes phospholipids to form a spherically bilayer structure called liposome. In it, all nonpolar tails in each phospholipid molecular layer is called a leaflet. Examples of phospholipids are phosphatidylcholine (the phosphate group is attached to a second small hydrophilic compound such as choline. See first image) and sphingomyelin.

Because the lipid bilayer has a nonpolar hydrophobic core that is not easily permeable, biomembranes are interspersed or separated by proteins (referred to as membrane proteins) that allow certain molecules and ions to pass and so act as gateways or pathways towards and outwards the cell cytoplasm. The best analogy here is that of a concrete house interspersed with windows and doors to allow passage of people and air.

Fluid Mosaic Model. Click on Image For Credit.

Structurally, the plasma membrane is referred to as having a Fluid Mosaic Model. This refers to the story of Prophet Moses (Mosaic) parting the sea, and crossing over. The protein gateway here provide that effect.

Cholesterol is another lipid molecule that is present in the biomembrane. It consists of four hydrocarbon rings (that are strongly hydrophobic) and a hydroxyl group (O-H) attached to one end and is weakly hydrophilic. This quality makes cholesterol amphipathic as well.

One of its main functions is that it can break down the tight connection of the biomembrane phospholipid bilayer making it more flexible for the passage of small molecules and ions. Because of this and the fact that phospholipids have the capacity of movement within the biomembrane (more on this later), it explains the presence of “fluid” in the Fluid Mosaic Model.

In the electron microscope, the cell membrane appears to have a trilaminar appearance (having three layers):

Electron Microscopy of Plasma Membrane. Click on Image For Credit.

Two dark bands indicating the lipid bilayers of the hydrophobic tail and one bright band showing the intramembranous space between the bilayers. The hydrophilic core or polar head is not visible because it has dissolved in water.