Nanoscopic lipid domain dynamics revealed by atomic force microscopy

Biophys J. 2003 Apr;84(4):2609-18. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(03)75066-8.


Intrinsic heterogeneities, represented as domain formations in biological membranes, are important to both the structure and function of the membranes. We observed domain formations in mixed lipid bilayers of dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine (DPPC), dilauroylphosphatidylcholine (DLPC), and cholesterol (chol) in a fluid environment using an atomic force microscope (AFM). At room temperature, we demonstrated that both microscopic and nanoscopic domains coexist and the DPPC-rich domain is approximately 1.4 nm higher than the surrounding DLPC-rich membrane areas as a consequence of intrinsic phase differences. DPPC-rich microscopic domains became larger as DPPC concentration increased. In cholesterol-free mixtures, nanoscopic DPPC-rich domain sizes ranged from 26 to 46 nm depending on phospholipid concentration. Domain size varied between 33 and 48 nm in the presence of cholesterol (0 < or = [chol] < or = 40). The nanoscopic domains were markedly fragmented near [chol] = 0.135 and appeared to fuse more readily into microscopic domains at higher and lower [chol]. By phase balance analyses we demonstrated phase behavior differences between a free-vesicle GUV system studied by confocal light microscopy and a supported membrane system studied by AFM. We propose a new three-dimensional phase diagram elucidating the effects of a solid substrate support on lipid phase behavior relevant to complex membrane phase phenomena in biological systems.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • 1,2-Dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine / chemistry*
  • Cholesterol / chemistry
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Membrane Fluidity*
  • Membrane Microdomains / chemistry*
  • Membrane Microdomains / ultrastructure*
  • Nanotechnology / methods*
  • Particle Size
  • Phosphatidylcholines / chemistry*


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • 1,2-Dipalmitoylphosphatidylcholine
  • 1,2-linoleoylphosphatidylcholine
  • Cholesterol