The 'cell membrane' (also known as the plasma membrane or cytoplasmic membrane) is a biological membrane that separates the interior of all cells from the outside environment. The cell membrane is selectively permeable to ions and organic molecules and controls the movement of substances in and out of cells. The basic function of the cell membrane is to protect the cell from its surroundings. It consists of the phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins. Cell membranes are involved in a variety of cellular processes such as cell adhesion, ion conductivity and cell signaling and serve as the attachment surface for several extracellular structures, including the cell wall, glycocalyx, and intracellular cytoskeleton. Cell membranes can be artificially reassembled.
The cell membrane or plasma membrane surrounds the cytoplasm of living cells, physically separating the intracellular components from the extracellular environment. Fungi, bacteria and plants also have the cell wall which provides a mechanical support for the cell and precludes the passage of larger molecules. The cell membrane also plays a role in anchoring the cytoskeleton provide shape to the cell, and in attaching to the extracellular matrix and other cells to help group cells together to form tissues.
The lipid bilayer is a thin polar membrane made of two layers of lipid molecules. These membranes are flat sheets that form a continuous barrier around cells. The cell membrane of almost all living organisms and many viruses are made of a lipid bilayer, as are the membranes surrounding the cell nucleus and other sub-cellular structures. The lipid bilayer is the barrier that keeps ions, proteins and other molecules where they are needed and prevents them from diffusing into areas where they should not be. Lipid bilayers are ideally suited to this role because, even though they are only a few nanometers in width, they are impermeable to most water-soluble (hydrophilic) molecules. Bilayers are particularly impermeable to ions, which allows cells to regulate salt concentrations and pH by pumping ions across their membranes using proteins called ion pumps.
Natural bilayers are usually composed of phospholipids, which have a hydrophilic head and two hydrophobic tails each. When phospholipids are exposed to water, they arrange themselves into a two-layered sheet (a bilayer) with all of their tails pointing toward the center of the sheet. The center of this bilayer contains almost no water and excludes molecules like sugars or salts that dissolve in water but not in oil. This assembly process is similar to the coalescing of oil droplets in water and is driven by the same force, called the hydrophobic effect. Because lipid bilayers are quite fragile and are so thin that they are invisible in a traditional microscope, bilayers are very challenging to study. Experiments on bilayers often require advanced techniques like electron microscopy and atomic force microscopy.
Membrane biology is the study of the biological and physiochemical characteristics of membranes.