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March 27, 1972

Symposium on Membrane Structure and Function

JAMA. 1972;219(13):1756-1757. doi:10.1001/jama.1972.03190390040013

When nearly two centuries ago Bichat based his theory of pathology on tissues, he called them "membranes." In later years the term became synonymous with the serous or mucous lining of body cavities. Today, when not otherwise specified, the term refers to the membrane of the cell. This cellular enclosure is usually described as a wall, a sac, or an envelope. None of these descriptive metaphors fits, because none conveys the essential functions of cellular membranes. Clearly, what is needed is not a metaphor, but insights into structure and function. These are provided in a special symposium in the February issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

The existence of a plasma membrane was assumed by physiologists on the basis of osmotic measurements long before its visualization became possible. In 1895, having deduced from permeability studies that the plasma membrane must contain lipids, Overton1 devised the "olive oil" model.