The tetraspanin superfamily: molecular facilitators

FASEB J. 1997 May;11(6):428-42.


A legacy of molecular evolution is the formation of gene families encoding proteins that often serve related functions. One such family gaining recent attention is the tetraspanin superfamily, whose membership has grown to nearly 20 known genes since its discovery in 1990. All encode cell-surface proteins that span the membrane four times, forming two extracellular loops. Some of these genes are found in organisms as primitive as schistosomes and nematodes. Alternately known as the transmembrane 4 (TM4) superfamily or the TM4SF, 4TM, or tetraspan family, we propose here that the name tetraspanins be used for the purpose of standardization. What do the tetraspanins do? Awaiting definitive functional studies, we can only put together pieces of a puzzle that has been built by raising antibodies against these proteins and looking at their distribution, associations, and functions. A brief overview indicates that some tetraspanins are found in virtually all tissues (CD81, CD82, CD9, CD63), whereas others are highly restricted, such as CD37 (B cells) or CD53 (lymphoid and myeloid cells). Many of these proteins have a flair for promiscuous associations with other molecules, including lineage-specific proteins, integrins, and other tetraspanins. In terms of function, they are involved in diverse processes such as cell activation and proliferation, adhesion and motility, differentiation, and cancer. We propose that these functions may all relate to their ability to act as "molecular facilitators," grouping specific cell-surface proteins and thus increasing the formation and stability of functional signaling complexes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Cell Membrane / genetics
  • Cell Membrane / physiology
  • Humans
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Membrane Proteins / genetics*
  • Membrane Proteins / physiology
  • Multigene Family*
  • Phylogeny
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Membrane Proteins