Structure and Composition of Cell Membranes


Cell membranes, also known as plasma membranes, are essential components of all living cells. They serve as a barrier between the cell’s internal environment and the external surroundings, controlling the movement of substances into and out of the cell. The structure and composition of cell membranes play a crucial role in their functions. In this article, we will explore the key components and organization of cell membranes.

Phospholipid Bilayer

The primary structural component of cell membranes is a phospholipid bilayer. Phospholipids are amphipathic molecules, meaning they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and hydrophobic (water-repelling) regions. The phospholipids arrange themselves in a double layer, with the hydrophilic heads facing outward towards the watery environments and the hydrophobic tails orienting towards each other in the interior of the bilayer. This arrangement provides a stable barrier that separates the cell’s interior from the extracellular environment.


In addition to phospholipids, cell membranes contain various proteins that are embedded within or attached to the phospholipid bilayer. These proteins serve a wide range of functions, including transport of molecules across the membrane, cell signaling, and structural support. There are two main types of membrane proteins:

Integral Proteins

Integral proteins are firmly embedded within the phospholipid bilayer. They span the entire membrane, with portions exposed on both the intracellular and extracellular sides. These proteins often have hydrophobic regions that interact with the hydrophobic tails of the phospholipids, anchoring them within the membrane. Integral proteins can form channels, carriers, receptors, and enzymes, allowing specific substances to enter or exit the cell or facilitating cellular communication.

Peripheral Proteins

Peripheral proteins are not embedded within the phospholipid bilayer but are instead loosely attached to either the inner or outer surface of the membrane. They interact with integral proteins or specific regions of the phospholipids. Peripheral proteins contribute to various cellular processes, such as cell adhesion, signal transduction, and enzymatic activity.


Cholesterol is another significant component of cell membranes, especially in animal cells. Cholesterol molecules are interspersed within the phospholipid bilayer, helping to stabilize the membrane’s structure. Cholesterol contributes to the fluidity and flexibility of the membrane, allowing it to function properly under different physiological conditions. It also reduces the permeability of the membrane to certain substances, such as ions, while maintaining the necessary fluidity for other molecules to pass through.

Glycolipids and Glycoproteins

Glycolipids and glycoproteins are molecules found on the outer surface of the cell membrane. They have carbohydrate chains attached to lipids (glycolipids) or proteins (glycoproteins). These molecules serve various functions, including cell recognition, cell adhesion, and immune response. They also play a role in cell-cell communication and the formation of specialized structures, such as the glycocalyx.


Cell membranes are complex structures composed of phospholipids, proteins, cholesterol, and carbohydrates. The phospholipid bilayer forms the basic framework, with proteins embedded within or attached to it. Proteins facilitate various cellular processes, while cholesterol provides stability and regulates membrane fluidity. Glycolipids and glycoproteins contribute to cell recognition and adhesion. Understanding the structure and composition of cell membranes helps us appreciate their vital role in maintaining cellular integrity and regulating the transport of substances in and out of cells.