Energetics of Inclusion-induced Bilayer Deformations

Claus Hélix-Nielsen, Mark Goulian, Olaf S Andersen

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The material properties of lipid bilayers can affect membrane protein function whenever conformational changes in the membrane-spanning proteins perturb the structure of the surrounding bilayer. This coupling between the protein and the bilayer arises from hydrophobic interactions between the protein and the bilayer. We analyze the free energy cost associated with a hydrophobic mismatch, i.e., a difference between the length of the protein's hydrophobic exterior surface and the average thickness of the bilayer's hydrophobic core, using a (liquid-crystal) elastic model of bilayer deformations. The free energy of the deformation is described as the sum of three contributions: compression-expansion, splay-distortion, and surface tension. When evaluating the interdependence among the energy components, one modulus renormalizes the other: e.g., a change in the compression-expansion modulus affects not only the compression-expansion energy but also the splay-distortion energy. The surface tension contribution always is negligible in thin solvent-free bilayers. When evaluating the energy per unit distance (away from the inclusion), the splay-distortion component dominates close to the bilayer/inclusion boundary, whereas the compression-expansion component is more prominent further away from the boundary. Despite this complexity, the bilayer deformation energy in many cases can be described by a linear spring formalism. The results show that, for a protein embedded in a membrane with an initial hydrophobic mismatch of only 1 Angstrom, an increase in hydrophobic mismatch to 1.3 Angstrom can increase the Boltzmann factor (the equilibrium distribution for protein conformation) 10-fold due to the elastic properties of the bilayer.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)1966-1983
Publication statusPublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes


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