In addition to intracellular organelles, eukaryotic cells also contain extracellular organelles that are released, or shed, into the microenvironment. These membranous extracellular organelles include exosomes, shedding microvesicles (SMVs) and apoptotic blebs (ABs), many of which exhibit pleiotropic biological functions. Because extracellular organelle terminology is often confounding, with many preparations reported in the literature being mixtures of extracellular vesicles, there is a growing need to clarify nomenclature and to improve purification strategies in order to discriminate the biochemical and functional activities of these moieties. Exosomes are formed by the inward budding of multivesicular bodies (MVBs) and are released from the cell into the microenvironment following the fusion of MVBs with the plasma membrane (PM). In this review we focus on various strategies for purifying exosomes and discuss their biophysical and biochemical properties. An update on proteomic analysis of exosomes from various cell types and body fluids is provided and host-cell specific proteomic signatures are also discussed. Because the ectodomain of ~42% of exosomal integral membrane proteins are also found in the secretome, these vesicles provide a potential source of serum-based membrane protein biomarkers that are reflective of the host cell. ExoCarta, an exosomal protein and RNA database (http://exocarta.ludwig.edu.au), is described.
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