The structural and functional properties of reconstituted nicotinic acetylcholine receptor membranes composed of phosphatidyl choline either with or without cholesterol and/or phosphatidic acid have been examined to test the hypothesis that receptor conformational equilibria are modulated by the physical properties of the surrounding lipid environment. Spectroscopic and chemical labeling data indicate that the receptor in phosphatidylcholine alone is stabilized in a desensitized-like state, whereas the presence of either cholesterol or phosphatidic acid favors a resting-like conformation. Membranes that effectively stabilize a resting-like state exhibit a relatively large proportion of non-hydrogen-bonded lipid ester carbonyls, suggesting a relatively tight packing of the lipid head groups and thus a well ordered membrane. Functional reconstituted membranes also exhibit gel-to-liquid crystal phase transition temperatures that are higher than those of nonfunctional reconstituted membranes composed of phosphatidylcholine alone. Significantly, incorporation of the receptor into phosphatidic acid-containing membranes leads to a dramatic increase in both the lateral packing densities and the gel-to-liquid crystal phase transition temperatures of the reconstituted lipid bilayers. These results suggest a functional link between the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and the physical properties of phosphatidic acid-containing membranes that could underlie the mechanism by which this lipid preferentially enhances receptor function.