The role of membrane thickness in charged protein-lipid interactions

Libo B. Li, Igor Vorobyov, Toby W. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Charged amino acids are known to be important in controlling the actions of integral and peripheral membrane proteins and cell disrupting peptides. Atomistic molecular dynamics studies have shed much light on the mechanisms of membrane binding and translocation of charged protein groups, yet the impact of the full diversity of membrane physico-chemical properties and topologies has yet to be explored. Here we have performed a systematic study of an arginine (Arg) side chain analog moving across saturated phosphatidylcholine (PC) bilayers of variable hydrocarbon tail length from 10 to 18 carbons. For all bilayers we observe similar ion-induced defects, where Arg draws water molecules and lipid head groups into the bilayers to avoid large dehydration energy costs. The free energy profiles all exhibit sharp climbs with increasing penetration into the hydrocarbon core, with predictable shifts between bilayers of different thickness, leading to barrier reduction from 26 kcal/mol for 18 carbons to 6 kcal/mol for 10 carbons. For lipids of 10 and 12 carbons we observe narrow transmembrane pores and corresponding plateaus in the free energy profiles. Allowing for movements of the protein and side chain snorkeling, we argue that the energetic cost for burying Arg inside a thin bilayer will be small, consistent with recent experiments, also leading to a dramatic reduction in pK a shifts for Arg. We provide evidence that Arg translocation occurs via an ion-induced defect mechanism, except in thick bilayers (of at least 18 carbons) where solubility-diffusion becomes energetically favored. Our findings shed light on the mechanisms of ion movement through membranes of varying composition, with implications for a range of charged protein-lipid interactions and the actions of cell-perturbing peptides. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Membrane protein structure and function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)135-145
Number of pages11
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Biomembranes
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2012


  • Arginine
  • Ion permeation
  • Ion-induced defect
  • Membrane thickness
  • Protein-lipid interaction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Cell Biology


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