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Many cells have a cell membrane composed of two layers of lipids, why is it two layers and not just one?

What purpose do the membranes serve?

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5 Answers 5

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The lipids that make up the cell membrane have a hydrophilic (water loving) head and a hydrophobic (water hating) tail - the wiki article explains this in more detail and I will add more to this answer soon but here is a key quote from the wiki page -

"The cell membrane consists primarily of a thin layer of amphipathic phospholipids which spontaneously arrange so that the hydrophobic "tail" regions are isolated from the surrounding polar fluid, causing the more hydrophilic "head" regions to associate with the intracellular (cytosolic) and extracellular faces of the resulting bilayer. This forms a continuous, spherical lipid bilayer."

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You don't mention why membranes are used (broad indeed!) – Good Gravy Aug 12 at 23:33

Why a bi-layer?

There has been an MD simulation carried out to investigate the biophysicochemistry of spontaneous bilayer assembly. There, lipids start in random orientations. The ordered bilayers we know and love spontaneously assemble in under 100ns.

It would appear that the conditions for an ordered bilayer are so favourable that they take precedence over any other orientation or combination.

Why use membranes?

Compartmentalising the cell has lots of advantages and purposes. Broadly this is to create different sets of conditions (chemical and biological) inside the cells. This allows more efficient functioning and advanced catabolic and metabolic processing.

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I think actual reason for 'why' is evolutionary rather than physical. – Dexter Nov 4 at 5:39
@Dexter Absolutely! I avoided directly talking about that because for something this fundamental and ancient it becomes hard to untangle the evolutionary story from chemistry since the evolutionary events happened so long ago in such a primitive biological state. And I'd love to see if evolution has solved a situation where the bilayer didn't fit the bill well (I hope that extremophile mono layer turns out to be true!) – Good Gravy Nov 4 at 6:09

The lipid bilayer creates an environment that allows the passage of some gasses and ions in a passive manner. Alternatively, important integral membrane proteins such as proton pumps are embedded in the bilayer and create a voltage differential in the cell. The pumps are powered by ATP - consider studying symporters and antiporters. Important proteins get anchored in the bilayer in order to perform their functions.

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Actually there are monolayers in some extremophilic archeon, wich have both layers of the regular membranes attached by covalent bonds.

However, the main reason is that membranes are formed by virtue of hydrophobic interactions. Phospholipids are amphipathic mollecules wich have a polar "head" (given by the negative charge of the phosphate group) and an hydrophobic "tail" (usually two alliphatic chains).

The mollecule tries to avoid the state of minimal entropy, wich in this case would be to "swim" freely in the water. In this hypothetical state, water mollecules would need to orientate themselves in order to minimize the contact with the hydrophobic tail (wich are very big mollecular gropus who doesn't atract the polar water mollecules) and to maximize the contact with the polar head. If this mollecule finds more mollecules of their kind they will stick together by their hydrophobic tails, because that will reduce the urge to organize water mollecules, and by so, raising the entropy of the system. There are some posible conformation wich allow to do this, and one or other will produce depending of the composition of the lipid mix.

Lastly, membranes serve mainly as selective barriers wich separate the internal cell, whose conditions are regulated, and the outside. Membranes can have embeded enzymatical systems, such as photosystems, respiratory chains or some key metabolic paths. Also, they usually contain sensitive proteins who respond to the external condictions and regulate the behaviour of the cell. Other functions can be found, but those are the most important.

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Could you add a citation for the extremophilic archeon that use monolayers? It sounds impossible (as much of the extremophilic stuff does)! – Good Gravy Aug 12 at 23:35
@GoodGravy is correct, it sound impossible to get 'living' organism inside single lipid layer. References will be good. – Dexter Nov 4 at 5:41

Membranes provide a number of benefits to organisms: 1. They represent the bounds of organism... If not for the membrane, how would you establish the (physical) limits of the organism? Would the organism be just naked DNA (I'm using this as shorthand for (genetic material')? If it made proteins from this DNA, would they be part of the organism or just environmental elements that may act on the DNA.

  1. They act as sites of metabolism... There are a number of viruses that lack membranes, but these 'organisms' are not universally considered alive. One of the best arguments against viruses being alive is that they do not carry out metabolism (producing energy / breaking things down / building things up). Many metabolic reactions cells participate in occur within and across membranes.

  2. They conveniently self-assemble from composite parts and can react and respond to the environment without 'breaking'.

  3. They allow organisms to concentrate things. Imagine you find yourself in a rich environment and produce sugars for use later. Where can you store them? Cells also store ions like Ca++ which can be released rapidly to have an effect on the organism.

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You've given some reasons why membranes are useful, but nothing about why a bilayer is important. – Good Gravy Nov 4 at 6:15
You're right, Good Gravy. I think I had read through that part of the question entirely. I think I would say that sometimes things just work out. Phospholipids are used not just in cell membranes, but also with fat-transport molecules, etc. Certainly this use in particular is millions of years downstream from the 'decision' to use phospholipids to generate cell membranes, but it does illustrate how an amphipathic molecule might be more useful than one that is not. Moreover, once half the membrane molecule developed, the solution self-assembled, negating the need for further 'development'. – johntreml Nov 4 at 14:13

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