Molecular Dynamics Simulations Based on Polarizable Models Show that Ion Permeation Interconverts between Different Mechanisms as a Function of Membrane Thickness

Peiran Chen, Igor Vorobyov, Benoît Roux, Toby W. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Different mechanisms have been proposed to explain the permeation of charged compounds through lipid membranes. Overall, it is expected that an ion-induced defect permeation mechanism, where substantial membrane deformations accompany ion movement, should be dominant in thin membranes but that a solubility-diffusion mechanism, where ions partition into the membrane core with large associated dehydration energy costs, becomes dominant in thicker membranes. However, while this physical picture is intuitively reasonable, capturing the interconversion between these two permeation mechanisms in molecular dynamics (MD) simulations based on atomic models is challenging. In particular, simulations relying on nonpolarizable force fields are artificially unfavorable to the solubility-diffusion mechanism, as induced polarization of the nonpolar hydrocarbon is ignored, causing overestimated free energy costs for charged molecules to enter into this region of the membrane. In this study, all-atom MD simulations based on nonpolarizable and polarizable force fields are used to quantitatively characterize the permeation process for the arginine side chain analog methyl-guanidinium through bilayer membranes of mono-unsaturated phosphatidylcholine lipids with and without cholesterol, resulting in thicknesses spanning from ∼24 to ∼42 Å. With simulations based on a nonpolarizable force field, ion translocation can take place solely through an ion-induced defect mechanism, with free energy barriers increasing linearly from 14 to 40 kcal/mol, depending on the thickness. However, with simulations based on a polarizable force field, ion translocation is predominantly dominated by an ion-induced defect mechanism in thin membranes, which progressively converts to a solubility-diffusion mechanism as the membranes get thicker. The transition between the two mechanisms occurs at a thickness of ∼29 Å, with lipid tails of 22 or more carbon atoms. This situation appears to represent the upper limit for ion-induced defect permeation within the current polarizable models. Beyond this thickness, it becomes energetically preferable for the ion to dehydrate and partition into the membrane core - a phenomenon that cannot be captured using the nonpolarizable models. Induced electronic polarizability therefore leads not just to a shift in permeation energetics but to an interconversion between two strikingly different physical mechanisms. The result highlights the importance of induced polarizability in modeling lipid membranes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1020-1035
Number of pages16
JournalThe journal of physical chemistry. B
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 4 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Surfaces, Coatings and Films
  • Materials Chemistry


Dive into the research topics of 'Molecular Dynamics Simulations Based on Polarizable Models Show that Ion Permeation Interconverts between Different Mechanisms as a Function of Membrane Thickness'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this