The plasma membrane of eukaryotic cells is not a simple sheet of lipids and proteins but is differentiated into subdomains with crucial functions. Caveolae, small pits in the plasma membrane, are the most abundant surface subdomains of many mammalian cells. The cellular functions of caveolae have long remained obscure, but a new molecular understanding of caveola formation has led to insights into their workings. Caveolae are formed by the coordinated action of a number of lipid-interacting proteins to produce a microdomain with a specific structure and lipid composition. Caveolae can bud from the plasma membrane to form an endocytic vesicle or can flatten into the membrane to help cells withstand mechanical stress. The role of caveolae as mechanoprotective and signal transduction elements is reviewed in the context of disease conditions associated with caveola dysfunction.
Keywords: caveolae; endocytosis; lipid; mechanoprotection; plasma membrane; signal transduction.