Effects of membrane lipids on ion channel structure and function

Cell Biochem Biophys. 2003;38(2):161-90. doi: 10.1385/CBB:38:2:161.


Biologic membranes are not simply inert physical barriers, but complex and dynamic environments that affect membrane protein structure and function. Residing within these environments, ion channels control the flux of ions across the membrane through conformational changes that allow transient ion flux through a central pore. These conformational changes may be modulated by changes in transmembrane electrochemical potential, the binding of small ligands or other proteins, or changes in the local lipid environment. Ion channels play fundamental roles in cellular function and, in higher eukaryotes, are the primary means of intercellular signaling, especially between excitable cells such as neurons. The focus of this review is to examine how the composition of the bilayer affects ion channel structure and function. This is an important consideration because the bilayer composition varies greatly in different cell types and in different organellar membranes. Even within a membrane, the lipid composition differs between the inner and outer leaflets, and the composition within a given leaflet is both heterogeneous and highly dynamic. Differential packing of lipids (and proteins) leads to the formation of microdomains, and lateral diffusion of these microdomains or "lipid rafts" serve as mobile platforms for the clustering and organization of bilayer constituents including ion channels. The structure and function of these channels are sensitive to specific chemical interactions with neighboring components of the membrane and also to the biophysical properties of their membrane microenvironment (e.g., fluidity, lateral pressure profile, and bilayer thickness). As specific examples, we have focused on the K+ ion channels and the ligand-gated nicotinicoid receptors, two classes of ion channels that have been well-characterized structurally and functionally. The responsiveness of these ion channels to changes in the lipid environment illustrate how ion channels, and more generally, any membrane protein, may be regulated via cellular control of membrane composition.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ion Channels / chemistry
  • Ion Channels / physiology
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Lipid Bilayers / metabolism*
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Membrane Fluidity*
  • Membrane Lipids / chemistry
  • Membrane Microdomains / chemistry*
  • Membrane Microdomains / metabolism*
  • Potassium Channels / chemistry*
  • Potassium Channels / physiology*
  • Protein Conformation
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Ion Channels
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Membrane Lipids
  • Potassium Channels