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An illustration of a phospholipid shows a hydrophilic head group composed of phosphate connected to a three-carbon glycerol molecule, and two hydrophobic tails composed of long hydrocarbon chains.
This phospholipid molecule is composed of a hydrophilic head and two hydrophobic tails. The hydrophilic head group consists of a phosphate-containing group attached to a glycerol molecule. The hydrophobic tails, each containing either a saturated or an unsaturated fatty acid, are long hydrocarbon chains.

This characteristic is vital to the structure of a plasma membrane because, in water, phospholipids tend to become arranged with their hydrophobic tails facing each other and their hydrophilic heads facing out. In this way, they form a lipid bilayer—a barrier composed of a double layer of phospholipids that separates the water and other materials on one side of the barrier from the water and other materials on the other side. In fact, phospholipids heated in an aqueous solution tend to spontaneously form small spheres or droplets (called micelles or liposomes), with their hydrophilic heads forming the exterior and their hydrophobic tails on the inside ( [link] ).

The image on the left shows a spherical lipid bilayer. The image on the right shows a smaller sphere that has a single lipid layer only. The image at the bottom shows a lipid bilayer sheet.
In an aqueous solution, phospholipids tend to arrange themselves with their polar heads facing outward and their hydrophobic tails facing inward. (credit: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)


Proteins make up the second major component of plasma membranes. Integral proteins (some specialized types are called integrins) are, as their name suggests, integrated completely into the membrane structure, and their hydrophobic membrane-spanning regions interact with the hydrophobic region of the the phospholipid bilayer ( [link] ). Single-pass integral membrane proteins usually have a hydrophobic transmembrane segment that consists of 20–25 amino acids. Some span only part of the membrane—associating with a single layer—while others stretch from one side of the membrane to the other, and are exposed on either side. Some complex proteins are composed of up to 12 segments of a single protein, which are extensively folded and embedded in the membrane ( [link] ). This type of protein has a hydrophilic region or regions, and one or several mildly hydrophobic regions. This arrangement of regions of the protein tends to orient the protein alongside the phospholipids, with the hydrophobic region of the protein adjacent to the tails of the phospholipids and the hydrophilic region or regions of the protein protruding from the membrane and in contact with the cytosol or extracellular fluid.

The left part of this illustration shows an integral membrane protein with a single alpha-helix that spans the membrane. The middle part shows a protein with several alpha-helices spanning the membrane. The right part shows a protein with two beta-sheets spanning the membrane.
Integral membranes proteins may have one or more alpha-helices that span the membrane (examples 1 and 2), or they may have beta-sheets that span the membrane (example 3). (credit: “Foobar”/Wikimedia Commons)

Peripheral proteins are found on the exterior and interior surfaces of membranes, attached either to integral proteins or to phospholipids. Peripheral proteins, along with integral proteins, may serve as enzymes, as structural attachments for the fibers of the cytoskeleton, or as part of the cell’s recognition sites. These are sometimes referred to as “cell-specific” proteins. The body recognizes its own proteins and attacks foreign proteins associated with invasive pathogens.

Questions & Answers

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Besides the seed, what other major structure diminishes a plant's reliance on water for reproduction?
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Some cycads are considered endangered species and their trade is severely restricted. Customs officials stop suspected smugglers who claim that the plants in their possession are palm trees, not cycads. How would a botanist distinguish between the two types of plants?
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