All cells-both prokaryotic and eukaryotic-are surrounded by a plasma membrane, which defines the boundary of the cell and separates its internal contents from the environment. By serving as a selective barrier to the passage of molecules, the plasma membrane determines the composition of the cytoplasm. This ultimately defines the very identity of the cell, so the plasma membrane is one of the most fundamental structures of cellular evolution. Indeed, as discussed in Chapter 1, the first cell is thought to have arisen by the enclosure of self-replicating RNA in a membrane of phospholipids.

The basic structure of the plasma membrane of present-day cells is the phospholipid bilayer, which is impermeable to most water-soluble molecules. The passage of ions and most organic molecules across the plasma membrane is therefore mediated by proteins, which are responsible for the selective traffic of molecules into and out of the cell. Other proteins of the plasma membrane control the interactions between cells of multicellular organisms and serve as sensors through which the cell receives signals from its environment. The plasma membrane thus plays a dual role: It both isolates the cytoplasm and mediates interactions between the cell and its environment.