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01.05.2016 | main topic | Ausgabe 7-8/2016 Open Access

Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift 7-8/2016

Endoplasmosis and exoplasmosis: the evolutionary principles underlying endocytosis, exocytosis, and vesicular transport

Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift > Ausgabe 7-8/2016
Johannes A. Schmid
List of abbreviations
ADP-ribosylation factor
coat protein complex
endoplasmic reticulum
guanosine triphosphatase
N-ethylmaleimide sensitive factor
soluble NSF attachment protein
SNAP receptor


While Darwin developed his theory of evolution for the macrobiological world, it is becoming increasingly evident that the general concept of evolution also applies to the cellular and subcellular world. In general, a central characteristic of all known organisms is their compartmentalisation, their delimitation from the surrounding environment. This compartmentalisation is a prerequisite for the generation and maintenance of electrochemical gradients that are essential for the energy processes of life. In contrast to prokaryotes, which consist in principle of only one “reaction compartment”, eukaryotes are characterised by a multicompartmental structure of various organelles within one common compartment. One of the crucial questions in that respect is how the intracellular organelles of eukaryotes evolved. The cytoplasmic membrane, which functions as the ultimate border of a cell, separates a cytoplasmic from an extra-cytoplasmic phase, or in other terms a plasmatic from a nonplasmatic sphere. Due to the multicompartmental organisation of eukaryotes, the cell contains internal nonplasmatic domains, namely all the compartments that are enclosed by a single lipid bilayer, like the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), the Golgi, endosomes or lysosomes.
Organelles that are enclosed by two lipid bilayers like chloroplasts or mitochondria exhibit a nonplasmatic intermembrane space, but their internal lumen is defined as plasmatic sphere comparable to the cytoplasm ([ 2, 3]; Fig.  1). This view is in agreement with the commonly accepted hypothesis that they were taken up from the extracellular environment by ancient pre-eukaryotes as endosymbionts [ 47]. Another organelle enclosed by two membranes is the nucleus, which is thought to have evolved from the ER [ 8] and which contains a plasmatic lumen that is linked to the cytosol via nuclear pore complexes that are permeable for ions and small proteins.

An evolutionary perspective of vesicular transport

An important question in the evolution of eukaryotic cells is how the compartments arose, which are enclosed by a single membrane. The common explanation is that they were originally formed by invagination and internalization of the cytoplasmic membrane [ 9]. Interestingly, these first endomembranes might have had rather secretory functions than features of current endocytic compartments given that certain GTPases of the secretory pathway seem to have evolved before those of the endocytic pathway [ 10]. Regardless of how these first endomembranes formed and whether they were more endocytic or more secretory in nature, they can be regarded as “internalized extracellular space”. From this point of view, it is a provoking but intriguing aspect to regard all nonplasmatic compartments within the cell as spheres, which are in some way functionally outside of the cell. The ER for instance can be regarded as first outstation of the cell in the course of secretion, which might have evolved as an internalised and specialised part of the cytoplasmic membrane [ 9] . Molecules that are co- or posttranslationally transported into the lumen of the ER are therefore equivalent to proteins secreted from prokaryotes. Strikingly, the ER and other organelles are not synthesised de novo in developing cells, but handed over from parental cells (“omnis membrana e membrana” [ 9]), supporting the notion that the compartmental organisation of eukaryotes is not encoded in the genome, but directly inherited. This notion also suggests that the eukaryotic ancestor cells must have had biological membranes [ 11]. The structure of eukaryotic cells with plasmatic and nonplasmatic spheres implies that the lipid bilayers, which form the membrane of organelles or the boundary between the cytoplasm and the extracellular environment, exhibit a plasmatic (or cis-) and an extraplasmatic (or trans-) face [ 3]. Endocytosis and exocytosis, as well as the membrane traffic within the cell require fusion and budding events that are all based on membrane fusion, where either the plasmatic or the extraplasmatic faces of two lipid bilayers first come in contact. These processes can be designated as cis- or trans-membrane fusion events, respectively. As a consequence of this view, we propose to designate all trans-membrane fusion processes (where the extraplasmatic membrane surfaces first come in contact) with the term “ endoplasmosis”, meaning an uptake of a vesicle or membrane compartment into a plasmatic phase. Vice versa, all cis-membrane fusion processes can be termed as “ exoplasmosis” meaning that a compartment fuses with a membrane with the two cis-sides coming into contact first, resulting in the release of the cargo into a nonplasmatic phase (Figs.  1 and  2). It has to be stated that the term “exoplasmosis” was used in an early publication on leukocyte degranulation in 1964 [ 1], but has not been applied systematically since then. Using these terms has the advantage of emphasizing conceptual similarities between different processes of endocytosis, exocytosis and vesicular transport as they stress the two underlying basic principles from a cell topology perspective. Endoplasmosis then subsumes processes such as the first step of endocytosis, or the budding and formation of carrier vesicles, for instance from ER, Golgi stacks or endosomes. Exoplasmosis would be the superordinate term for fusion of secretory vesicles with the plasma membrane, the fusion of carrier vesicles with target membranes and all other cis-membrane fusion events, where vesicles functionally leave the plasmatic sphere.
This concept is in line with the fact that there are many similarities between different forms of endoplasmosis or exoplasmosis, meaning trans- and cis-membrane fusion events, respectively. A common feature of endoplasmosis is the requirement for coat proteins at the plasmatic face of the membrane (Fig.  2). For endocytic internalisation, these coats can consist of clathrin [ 12] or caveolin [ 13, 14]. Furthermore, clathrin-coated areas can also be detected on the trans-Golgi network [ 12] and under certain circumstances also on sorting endosomes [ 15]. Along the exocytic route, the budding and formation of carrier vesicles from ER en route to the intermediate compartment requires COP-II (coat protein complex II) containing coats [ 16]. Finally, recycling of vesicles to the ER, as well as transport within the Golgi is dependent on COP-I [ 1720]. Some of these coat proteins that are characteristic for the exocytic pathway (COP-I and ARF [ADP-ribosylation factor]) were also detected on endosomal membranes [ 21].
Thus, all these examples of trans-membrane fusion events, which can be subsumed as endoplasmosis events, are characterised by the formation of coat structures at the cytosolic face of the membrane [ 22, 23], which seems to be important for generating a curvature of the membrane preceding the budding process [ 2426]. This view of a general principle underlying all these trans-membrane fusions events is supported by the fact that coat subunits from functionally distinct coats such as clathrin, COPI and COPII coats exhibit noticeable structural similarities with β‑propeller and α‑solenoid elements in a specific common arrangement (Fig.  3; reviewed in [ 6]). Furthermore, the proteins involved bind to each other in a way that leads to a very similar molecular architecture of the coat complex on the membrane as illustrated in Fig.  4 (reviewed in [ 27]) pointing at a common evolutionary origin of trans-membrane fusion events.
On the other hand, cis-membrane fusion processes from clearly different organelles also show striking mechanistic similarities as well as sequence homologies of the proteins that are involved therein. This holds true for fusion of carrier vesicles with target membranes in Golgi transport, fusion of secretory granules with the cytoplasmic membrane or endosome fusion, which are all dependent on certain fusion factors such as NSF (N-ethylmaleimide sensitive factor), SNAPs (soluble NSF attachment proteins), SNAREs (SNAP receptors) and Rab family GTPases (guanosine triphosphatases) (Fig.  2; [ 2839]). The evolutionary coherence of all these distinct membrane fusion processes is well demonstrated by the strong conservation and high degree of homology of Rab GTPases, which are important regulators of cis-membrane fusions at completely different organelles and locations within the cell (Fig.  5). Significant homologies are also found for other fusion factors such as SNARE proteins—and again their functional role seems to be the same for all the different cis-membrane fusion processes at distinct organelles within the cell. Phylogenetic analysis of the Qa family of human SNARE proteins (syntaxins) for various endomembranes reveals clear links, with syntaxins located at endosomes being closely related to syntaxins of the trans-Golgi network and slightly more distant to those of secretory vesicles. A very similar phylogenetic tree is observed for the Qa proteins of yeast (Fig.  6). However, in the latter case the proteins are more related to each other suggesting that higher order organisms developed a higher diversity of these fusion factors. While these sequence analyses clearly point at a common evolutionary origin of the different cis-membrane fusion processes, it is also clear that in current organisms and cells a high level of specificity is observed for cis-membrane fusion events of distinct intracellular compartments. This specificity is crucial for maintaining the functional integrity of the organelles, an ordered progress of vesicular transport and the “identity” of the membrane compartments. The available data indicate a model, in which all cis-membrane fusions go back to an ancient process of “exoplasmosis”, which was then altered by evolutionary diversification forming specific organelles and well-controlled fusion processes.


Based on the similarities between different membrane fusion processes, we suggest that there are two generally distinct mechanisms of membrane fusion, namely endoplasmosis (trans-membrane fusion) and exoplasmosis (cis-membrane fusion), which are the mechanistic ancestors of all the cellular membrane fusion events. These two basic principles of membrane fusion might be the origin for the evolution of the eukaryotic endomembrane system, which developed its complexity by diversification of the components, finally defining the identities of intracellular compartments and regulating the membrane traffic between them [ 4042].


Open access funding provided by Medical University of Vienna.

Compliance with ethical guidelines

Conflict of interest

J.A. Schmid states that there are no competing interests.

Ethical standards

The accompanying manuscript does not include studies on humans or animals.
Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.

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