The plasma membrane represents a physical inelastic barrier with a given area that adheres to the underlying cytoskeleton. The tension in the membrane physically affects cell functions and recent studies have highlighted that this physical signal orchestrates complex aspects of trafficking and motility. Despite its undeniable importance, little is known about the mechanisms by which membrane tension regulates cell functions or stimulates signals. The maintenance of membrane tension is also a matter of debate, particularly the nature of the membrane reservoir and trafficking pathways that buffer tension. In this review we discuss the importance of membrane area and of tension as a master integrator of cell functions, particularly for membrane traffic.
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