Membrane asymmetry

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Science  25 Feb 1977:
Vol. 195, Issue 4280, pp. 743-753
DOI: 10.1126/science.402030


The components of biological membranes are asymmetrically distributed between the membrane surfaces. Proteins are absolutely asymmetrical in that every copy of a polypeptide chain has the same orientation in the membrane, and lipids are nonabsolutely asymmetrical in that almost every type of lipid is present on both sides of the bilayer, but in different and highly variable amounts. Asymmetry is maintained by lack of transmembrane diffusion. Two types of membrane proteins, called ectoproteins and endoproteins, are distinguished. Biosynthetic pathways for both types of proteins and for membrane lipids are inferred from their topography and distribution in the formed cells. Note added in proof. A cell-free system has now been developed which permits the mechanisms of membrane protein assembly to be studied (108). The membrane glycoprotein of vesicular stomatitis virus has been synthesized by wheat germ ribosomes in the presence of rough endoplasmic reticulum from pancreas. The resulting polypeptide is incorporated into the membrane, spans the lipid bilayer asymmetrically, and is glycosylated (108). The amino terminal portion of this transmembrane protein is found inside the endoplasmic reticulum vesicle, while the carboxyl terminal portion is exposed on the outer surface of the vesicle. Furthermore, addition of the glycoprotein to membranes after protein synthesis does not result in incorporation of the protein into the membrane in the manner described above (108). Consequently, protein synthesis and incorporation into the membrane must be closely coupled. Indeed, using techniques to synchronize the growth of nascent polypeptides, it has been shown (109) that no more than one-fourth of the glycoprotein chain can be made in the absence of membranes and still cross the lipid bilayer when chains are subsequently completed in the presence of membranes. These findings demonstrate directly that the extracytoplasmic portion of an ectoprotein can cross the membrane only during biosynthesis, and not after.