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Open Access Research article

Hypothesis: could the signalling function of membrane microdomains involve a localized transition of lipids from liquid to solid state?

Etienne Joly

Author affiliations

IFR 30, U563 INSERM, CHU Purpan, 31300 Toulouse, France

Citation and License

BMC Cell Biology 2004, 5:3  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-5-3

Published: 19 January 2004

Abstract

Background

Over the past decade, it has become apparent that specialised membrane microdomains, commonly called rafts, where lipids like sphingolipids and cholesterol are arranged compactly in a liquid ordered phase are involved in cell signalling.

Hypothesis

The core of the hypothesis presented here is that resting cells may actively maintain their plasma membrane in liquid phase, corresponding to a metastable thermodynamic state. Following a physiological stimulus such as ligands binding to their membrane receptors, the tendency of membrane components to undergo a localised transition towards a gel state would increase, resulting in initial minute solid structures. These few membrane components having undergone a liquid to solid state transition, would then act as seeds for the specific recruitment of additional membrane components whose properties are compatible with the crystalline growth of these initial docks. Cells could therefore be using the propensity of lipids to assemble selectively to generate stable platforms of particular cellular components either for intra-cellular transport or for signal transduction.

Testing the hypothesis

could presumably be done via biophysical approaches such as EPR spin labelling, X-ray diffraction or FRET coupled to direct microscopic observation of cells to which very localized stimuli would be delivered.

Implications

Such a model of selective growth of membrane docks would provide an explanation for the existence of different types of microdomains, and for the fact that, depending on the state of the cells and on the procedures used to isolate them, membrane microdomains can vary greatly in their properties and composition. Ultimately, a thorough understanding of how and why lipid domains are assembled in biological membranes will be essential for many aspects of cell biology and medicine.