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Summary

The recent development of specific probes for lipid molecules has led to the discovery of lipid domains in bacterial membranes, that is, of membrane areas differing in lipid composition. A view of the membrane as a patchwork is replacing the assumption of lipid homogeneity inherent in the fluid mosaic model of Singer and Nicolson (Science 1972, 175: 720–731). If thus membranes have complex lipid structure, questions arise about how it is generated and maintained, and what its function might be. How do lipid domains relate to the functionally distinct regions in bacterial cells as they are identified by protein localization techniques? This review assesses the current knowledge on the existence of cardiolipin (CL) and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) domains in bacterial cell membranes and on the specific cellular localization of certain membrane proteins, which include phospholipid synthases, and discusses possible mechanisms, both chemical and physiological, for the formation of the lipid domains. We propose that bacterial membranes contain a mosaic of microdomains of CL and PE, which are to a significant extent self-assembled according to their respective intrinsic chemical characteristics. We extend the discussion to the possible relevance of the domains to specific cellular processes, including cell division and sporulation.