The Fluidity of Membranes


Factors that affect membrane fluidity.
Source: Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology (p. 128). Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.

Campbell Biology

Membranes are not static sheets of molecules locked rigidly in place. A membrane is held together mainly by hydrophobic interactions, which are much weaker than covalent bonds. Most of the lipids and some proteins can shift about sideways—that is, in the plane of the membrane, like partygoers elbowing their way through a crowded room. Very rarely, also, a lipid may flip-flop across the membrane, switching from one phospholipid layer to the other.

The sideways movement of phospholipids within the membrane is rapid. Adjacent phospholipids switch positions about 107 times per second, which means that a phospholipid can travel about 2 µm—the length of many bacterial cells—in 1 second. Proteins are much larger than lipids and move more slowly, but some membrane proteins do drift. Some membrane proteins seem to move in a highly directed manner, perhaps driven along cytoskeletal fibers in the cell by motor proteins connected to the membrane proteins’ cytoplasmic regions. However, many other membrane proteins seem to be held immobile by their attachment to the cytoskeleton or to the extracellular matrix.

A membrane remains fluid as temperature decreases until the phospholipids settle into a closely packed arrangement and the membrane solidifies, much as bacon grease forms lard when it cools. The temperature at which a membrane solidifies depends on the types of lipids it is made of. As the temperature decreases, the membrane remains fluid to a lower temperature if it is rich in phospholipids with unsaturated hydrocarbon tails. Because of kinks in the tails where double bonds are located, unsaturated hydrocarbon tails cannot pack together as closely as saturated hydrocarbon tails, making the membrane more fluid.

The steroid cholesterol, which is wedged between phospholipid molecules in the plasma membranes of animal cells, has different effects on membrane fluidity at different temperatures. At relatively high temperatures— at 37°C, the body temperature of humans, for example— cholesterol makes the membrane less fluid by restraining phospholipid movement. However, because cholesterol also hinders the close packing of phospholipids, it lowers the temperature required for the membrane to solidify. Thus, cholesterol can be thought of as a “fluidity buffer” for the membrane, resisting changes in membrane fluidity that can be caused by changes in temperature. Compared to animals, plants have very low levels of cholesterol; rather, related steroid lipids buffer membrane fluidity in plant cells.

Membranes must be fluid to work properly; the fluidity of a membrane affects both its permeability and the ability of membrane proteins to move to where their function is needed. Usually, membranes are about as fluid as salad oil. When a membrane solidifies, its permeability changes, and enzymatic proteins in the membrane may become inactive if their activity requires movement within the membrane. However, membranes that are too fluid cannot support protein function either. Therefore, extreme environments pose a challenge for life, resulting in evolutionary adaptations that include differences in membrane lipid composition.


Urry, Lisa A.. Campbell Biology. Pearson Education. Kindle Edition.


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