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Red blood cell membrane dynamics and organization

Mohandas Narla, DSc
Section Editor
Stanley L Schrier, MD
Deputy Editor
Jennifer S Tirnauer, MD


The plasma membrane of the red blood cell (RBC) consists of a complex, ordered array of lipids and proteins stretched over the outer surface of the cell in the form of a lipid bilayer punctuated by penetrating or attached proteins (figure 1). This membrane, as with other biologic membranes, has numerous properties that arise in part from specialized interactions between specific membrane proteins or lipids, or both [1].

Three features of the red cell membrane stand out:

Plasma membranes are noncovalent assemblies of billions of molecules, yet they tend to be self-assembling, self-sealing, and stable. A typical cell plasma membrane contains a billion lipid molecules and 10 million protein molecules. All these molecules are associated as an extraordinarily thin (6 to 10 nm), continuous sheet-like membrane enveloping the cell.

Plasma membranes are fluid structures, yet they are highly ordered with respect to the distribution of molecules both across the bilayer and within the plane of the bilayer. As a result, the distribution of both membrane lipids and proteins is highly asymmetric.

Plasma membranes function as a barrier, yet they readily pass ions (some against a concentration gradient), nutrients, and information (signals) between the cytoplasm and the extracellular environment. Information transfer often occurs without transmembrane molecular passage.

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Jun 12, 2017.
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