Lipid rafts are defined as cholesterol- and sphingomyelin-enriched membrane domains in the plasma membrane of cells that are highly dynamic and cannot be resolved with conventional light microscopy. Membrane proteins that are embedded in the phospholipid matrix can be grouped into raft and non-raft proteins based on their association with detergent-resistant membranes in biochemical assays. Selective lipid–protein interactions not only produce heterogeneity in the membrane, but also cause the spatial compartmentalization of membrane reactions. It has been proposed that lipid rafts function as platforms during cell signalling transduction processes such as T-cell activation (see Chapter 13 (pages 165–175)). It has been proposed that raft association co-localizes specific signalling proteins that may yield the formation of the observed signalling microclusters at the immunological synapses. However, because of the nanometre size and high dynamics of lipid rafts, direct observations have been technically challenging, leading to an ongoing discussion of the lipid raft model and its alternatives. Recent developments in fluorescence imaging techniques have provided new opportunities to investigate the organization of cell membranes with unprecedented spatial resolution. In this chapter, we describe the concept of the lipid raft and alternative models and how new imaging technologies have advanced these concepts.

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