A cell’s plasma membrane defines the cell, outlines its borders, and determines the nature of its interaction with its environment (see Table for a summary). Cells exclude some substances, take in others, and excrete still others, all in controlled quantities. The plasma membrane must be very flexible to allow certain cells, such as red and white blood cells, to change shape as they pass through narrow capillaries. These are the more obvious plasma membrane functions. In addition, the plasma membrane's surface carries markers that allow cells to recognize one another, which is vital for tissue and organ formation during early development, and which later plays a role in the immune response's “self” versus “non-self” distinction.
Among the most sophisticated plasma membrane functions is the ability for complex, integral proteins, receptors to transmit signals. These proteins act both as extracellular input receivers and as intracellular processing activators. These membrane receptors provide extracellular attachment sites for effectors like hormones and growth factors, and they activate intracellular response cascades when their effectors are bound. Occasionally, viruses hijack receptors (HIV, human immunodeficiency virus, is one example) that use them to gain entry into cells, and at times, the genes encoding receptors become mutated, causing the signal transduction process to malfunction with disastrous consequences.