In addition to the lipid bilayer, the cell membrane also contains a number of proteins. We have already mentioned the presence of certain proteins in the cell membrane. In this section we will discuss the different classes of proteins found there. While the lipid bilayer provides the structure for the cell membrane, membrane proteins allow for many of the interactions that occur between cells. As we discussed in the previous section, membrane proteins are free to move within the lipid bilayer as a result of its fluidity. Although this is true for most proteins, they can also be confined to certain areas of the bilayer with enzymes. Membrane proteins perform various functions, and this diversity is reflected in the significantly different types of proteins associated with the lipid bilayer.
Classifications of Membrane Proteins
Proteins are generally broken down into the smaller classifications of integral proteins, peripheral proteins, and lipid-bound proteins.
Integral proteins are embedded within the lipid bilayer. They cannot easily be removed from the cell membrane without the use of harsh detergents that destroy the lipid bilayer. Integral proteins float rather freely within the bilayer, much like oceans in the sea. In addition, integral proteins are usually transmembrane proteins, extending through the lipid bilayer so that one end contacts the interior of the cell and the other touches the exterior. The stretch of the integral protein within the hydrophobic interior of the bilayer is also hydrophobic, made up of non-polar amino acids. Like the lipid bilayer, the exposed ends of the integral protein are hydrophilic.
When a protein crosses the lipid bilayer it adopts an alpha-helical configuration. Transmembrane proteins can either cross the lipid bilayer one or multiple times. The former are referred to as single-pass proteins and the later as multi-pass proteins. As a result of their structure, transmembrane proteins are the only class of proteins that can perform functions both inside and outside of the cell.
Peripheral proteins are attached to the exterior of the lipid bilayer. They are easily separable from the lipid bilayer, able to be removed without harming the bilayer in any way. Peripheral proteins are less mobile within the lipid bilayer.
Lipid-bound proteins are located entirely within the boundaries of the lipid bilayer.
The Cell Surface
The protein and lipid cell membrane is covered with a layer of carbohydrate chains on its outer surface. This layer is called a cell coat or glycocalyx. The exact composition and distribution of these chains is very diverse. The chains are thought to provide the cell with protection against damage. Glycocalyx are only found on the surface of the cells of higher organism's.