Q&A: What are exosomes, exactly?

What is the current definition of an exosome?

That is a very good question. Since the original description of exosomes over 30 years ago, the term has been loosely used for various forms of extracellular vesicle, muddying the field and contributing to the scepticism with which the research has sometimes been met. Exosomes are best defined as extracellular vesicles that are released from cells upon fusion of an intermediate endocytic compartment, the multivesicular body (MVB), with the plasma membrane. This liberates intraluminal vesicles (ILVs) into the extracellular milieu and the vesicles thereby released are what we know as exosomes.


Exosomes correspond to intraluminal vesicles of multivesicular bodies. A transmission electron micrograph of an Epstein–Barr virus-transformed B cell displaying newly expelled exosomes at the plasma membrane. Multivesicular bodies (MVB) can be seen which can deliver content to lysosomes for degradation or can fuse with the cell surface to release intraluminal vesicles as exosomes, indicated by the arrows at the top of the picture

There are other types of microvesicle, including apoptotic bodies and ectosomes, which are derived from cells undergoing apoptosis and plasma membrane shedding, respectively. Although apoptotic bodies, ectosomes and exosomes are all roughly the same size (typically 40–100 nm) and all also contain ‘gulps’ of cytosol, they are different species of vesicles and understanding differences between them is of paramount importance but has too often been overlooked.

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