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Novel Cell Membrane Model Could be Key to Uncovering New Protein Properties

September 23, 2020

Researchers used neutron and x-ray scattering techniques at Oak Ridge and Brookhaven National Laboratories to characterize disc-shaped structures, known as bicelles, that mimic cell membranes. The rim of the disc comprises a detergent (purple), while the disc’s center is made up of glycerophospholipids (green), sphingomyelin (blue), and cholesterol (gold). Image Credit: Genevieve Martin

The cell membrane, the wall-like boundary between the cell interior and its outside environment, is primarily made up of two kinds of biomolecules: lipids and proteins. Different lipid species closely pack together to form a double layer, or “bilayer,” the membrane’s fundamental structure, while proteins are embedded within or attached to the bilayer.

Membrane proteins are responsible for various important cellular activities, and their dysfunction can lead to serious health issues. Studying membrane protein structures and how they behave will help scientists better understand their connection to diseases and aid in developing therapeutics.

A team of researchers led by Vanderbilt University has recently shed light on how membrane proteins could be influenced by the lipids around them. By developing a novel type of membrane model, the scientists were able to show that the shape and behavior of a protein can be altered by exposure to different lipid compositions.

The researchers confirmed the artificial membrane’s structure using x-ray and neutron scattering at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Brookhaven (BNL) and Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL). Their findings were published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“This work showed that a protein can change quite profoundly in different membrane lipid environments, and we think this opens up a whole new area of research,” said Charles Sanders, professor of biochemistry at Vanderbilt University and corresponding author of the new study.


Related Publication: Hutchison, J. M. et. al. (2020). Bicelles Rich in both Sphingolipids and Cholesterol and Their Use in Studies of Membrane Proteins. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 142(29), 12715-12729.