While the existence of cholesterol/sphingolipid (raft) membrane domains in the plasma membrane is now supported by strong experimental evidence, the structure of these domains, their size, their dynamics, and their molecular composition remain to be understood. Raft domains are thought to represent a specific physical state of lipid bilayers, the liquid-ordered phase. Recent observations suggest that in the mammalian plasma membrane small raft domains in ordered lipid phases are in a dynamic equilibrium with a less ordered membrane environment. Rafts may be enlarged and/or stabilized by protein-mediated cross-linking of raft-associated components. These changes of plasma membrane structure are perceived by the cells as signals, most likely an important element of immunoreceptor signalling. Pathogens abuse raft domains on the host cell plasma membrane as concentration devices, as signalling platforms and/or entry sites into the cell. Elucidation of these interactions requires a detailed understanding raft structure and dynamics.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.