The fluid mosaic model of the plasma membrane has evolved considerably since its original formulation 30 years ago. Membrane lipids do not form a homogeneous phase consisting of glycerophospholipids (GPLs) and cholesterol, but a mosaic of domains with unique biochemical compositions. Among these domains, those containing sphingolipids and cholesterol, referred to as membrane or lipid rafts, have received much attention in the past few years. Lipid rafts have unique physicochemical properties that direct their organisation into liquid-ordered phases floating in a liquid-crystalline ocean of GPLs. These domains are resistant to detergent solubilisation at 4°C and are destabilised by cholesterol- and sphingolipid-depleting agents. Lipid rafts have been morphologically characterised as small membrane patches that are tens of nanometres in diameter. Cellular and/or exogenous proteins that interact with lipid rafts can use them as transport shuttles on the cell surface. Thus, rafts act as molecular sorting machines capable of co-ordinating the spatiotemporal organisation of signal transduction pathways within selected areas (‘signalosomes’) of the plasma membrane. In addition, rafts serve as a portal of entry for various pathogens and toxins, such as human immunodeficiency virus 1 (HIV-1). In the case of HIV-1, raft microdomains mediate the lateral assemblies and the conformational changes required for fusion of HIV-1 with the host cell. Lipid rafts are also preferential sites of formation for pathological forms of the prion protein (PrPSc) and of the β-amyloid peptide associated with Alzheimer's disease. The possibility of modulating raft homeostasis, using statins and synthetic sphingolipid analogues, offers new approaches for therapeutic interventions in raft-associated diseases.
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