PerspectiveStructural Biology

Up Close with Membrane Lipid-Protein Complexes

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Science  21 Oct 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6054, pp. 320-321
DOI: 10.1126/science.1214084

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Cells, and the organelles within them, are surrounded by lipid-bilayer membranes that compartmentalize biochemical reactions and pathways. Membrane-embedded proteins control the flux of molecules, energy, and information such that the segregated compartments function as a unified living cell. Traditionally, membrane proteins were pictured as floating around quite independently of the surrounding lipids, yet when this fluid-mosaic model was described, Singer and Nicolson qualified that “a small fraction of the lipid may interact specifically with the membrane proteins” (1). It has taken 40 years to fully appreciate the importance of this assertion. On page 380 of this issue, Zhou et al. (2) report mass spectrometry of intact integral membrane protein complexes solubilized from bilayers. The results show that specific structural lipids remain bound in the gas phase and can be counted.