Exosomes and ectosomes, extracellular vesicles of two types generated by all cells at multivesicular bodies and the plasma membrane, respectively, play critical roles in physiology and pathology. A key mechanism of their function, analogous for both types of vesicles, is the fusion of their membrane to the plasma membrane of specific target cells, followed by discharge to the cytoplasm of their luminal cargo containing proteins, RNAs, and DNA.
The sequence initiates with dynamic interactions, during which vesicles roll over the plasma membrane, followed by the binding of specific membrane proteins to their cell receptors. Membrane binding is then converted rapidly into fusion by mechanisms analogous to those of retroviruses. Specifically, proteins of the extracellular vesicle membranes are structurally rearranged, and their hydrophobic sequences insert into the target cell plasma membrane which undergoes lipid reorganization, protein restructuring and membrane dimpling. Single fusions are not the only process of vesicle/cell interactions. Upon intracellular reassembly of their luminal cargoes, vesicles can be regenerated, released and fused horizontally to other target cells. Fusions of extracellular vesicles are relevant also for specific therapy processes, now intensely investigated.