The human erythrocyte plasma membrane: a Rosetta Stone for decoding membrane-cytoskeleton structure

Curr Top Membr. 2013;72:39-88. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-417027-8.00002-7.


The mammalian erythrocyte, or red blood cell (RBC), is a unique experiment of nature: a cell with no intracellular organelles, nucleus or transcellular cytoskeleton, and a plasma membrane with uniform structure across its entire surface. By virtue of these specialized properties, the RBC membrane has provided a template for discovery of the fundamental actin filament network machine of the membrane skeleton, now known to confer mechanical resilience, anchor membrane proteins, and organize membrane domains in all cells. This chapter provides a historical perspective and critical analysis of the biochemistry, structure, and physiological functions of this actin filament network in RBCs. The core units of this network are nodes of ~35-37 nm-long actin filaments, interconnected by long strands of (α1β1)₂-spectrin tetramers, forming a 2D isotropic lattice with quasi-hexagonal symmetry. Actin filament length and stability is critical for network formation, relying upon filament capping at both ends: tropomodulin-1 at pointed ends and αβ-adducin at barbed ends. Tropomodulin-1 capping is essential for precise filament lengths, and is enhanced by tropomyosin, which binds along the short actin filaments. αβ-adducin capping recruits spectrins to sites near barbed ends, promoting network formation. Accessory proteins, 4.1R and dematin, also promote spectrin binding to actin and, with αβ-adducin, link to membrane proteins, targeting actin nodes to the membrane. Dissection of the molecular organization within the RBC membrane skeleton is one of the paramount achievements of cell biological research in the past century. Future studies will reveal the structure and dynamics of actin filament capping, mechanisms of precise length regulation, and spectrin-actin lattice symmetry.

Keywords: Actin; Adducin; Dematin; Spectrin; Tropomodulin; Tropomyosin.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Actins / chemistry
  • Actins / metabolism
  • Calmodulin-Binding Proteins / chemistry
  • Calmodulin-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • CapZ Actin Capping Protein / chemistry
  • CapZ Actin Capping Protein / metabolism
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cytoskeleton / chemistry*
  • Cytoskeleton / metabolism
  • Cytoskeleton / ultrastructure
  • Erythrocytes / chemistry
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Microfilament Proteins / chemistry
  • Microfilament Proteins / metabolism
  • Protein Structure, Quaternary
  • Spectrin / metabolism
  • Tropomodulin / chemistry
  • Tropomodulin / metabolism
  • Tropomyosin / chemistry
  • Tropomyosin / metabolism


  • Actins
  • Calmodulin-Binding Proteins
  • CapZ Actin Capping Protein
  • DMTN protein, human
  • Microfilament Proteins
  • TMOD1 protein, human
  • Tropomodulin
  • Tropomyosin
  • adducin
  • Spectrin