Within the cell membrane glycosphingolipids and cholesterol cluster together in distinct domains or lipid rafts, along with glycosyl-phosphatidylinositol (GPI)-anchored proteins in the outer leaflet and acylated proteins in the inner leaflet of the bilayer. These lipid rafts are characterized by insolubility in detergents such as Triton X-100 at 4 degrees C. Studies on model membrane systems have shown that the clustering of glycosphingolipids and GPI-anchored proteins in lipid rafts is an intrinsic property of the acyl chains of these membrane components, and that detergent extraction does not artefactually induce clustering. Cholesterol is not required for clustering in model membranes but does enhance this process. Single particle tracking, chemical cross-linking, fluorescence resonance energy transfer and immunofluorescence microscopy have been used to directly visualize lipid rafts in membranes. The sizes of the rafts observed in these studies range from 70-370 nm, and depletion of cellular cholesterol levels disrupts the rafts. Caveolae, flask-shaped invaginations of the plasma membrane, that contain the coat protein caveolin, are also enriched in cholesterol and glycosphingolipids. Although caveolae are also insoluble in Triton X-100, more selective isolation procedures indicate that caveolae do not equate with detergent-insoluble lipid rafts. Numerous proteins involved in cell signalling have been identified in caveolae, suggesting that these structures may function as signal transduction centres. Depletion of membrane cholesterol with cholesterol binding drugs or by blocking cellular cholesterol biosynthesis disrupts the formation and function of both lipid rafts and caveolae, indicating that these membrane domains are involved in a range of biological processes.