Solution pH alters mechanical and electrical properties of phosphatidylcholine membranes: relation between interfacial electrostatics, intramembrane potential, and bending elasticity

Biophys J. 2007 Apr 1;92(7):2451-62. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.106.096362. Epub 2006 Dec 15.


Solution pH affects numerous biological processes and some biological membranes are exposed to extreme pH environments. We utilized micropipette aspiration of giant unilamellar vesicles composed of 1-stearoyl-2-oleoyl-phosphatidylcholine to characterize the effect of solution pH (2-9) on membrane mechanical properties. The elastic area compressibility modulus was unaffected between pH 3 and 9 but was reduced by approximately 30% at pH 2. Fluorescence experiments utilizing the phase-sensitive probe Laurdan confirmed gel-phase characteristics at pH 2, explaining the reduction of membrane elasticity. The membrane bending stiffness, kc, increased by approximately 40% at pH 4 and pH 9 over the control value at pH 6.5. Electrophoretic mobility measurements indicate that these changes are qualitatively consistent with theoretical models that predict the effect of membrane surface charge density and Debye length on kc, substantiating a coupling between the mechanical and interfacial electrical properties of the membrane. The effect of pH on intramembrane electrical properties was examined by studying the spectral shifts of the potentiometric probe di-8 ANEPPS. The intramembrane (dipole) potential (Psid) increased linearly as the solution pH decreased in a manner consistent with the partitioning of hydroxide ions into the membrane. However, changes in Psid did not correlate with changes in kc. These mechanical and electrical studies lead to the conclusion that the effect of pH on membrane bending stiffness results from alterations in interfacial, as opposed to intramembrane, electrostatics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Elasticity
  • Electric Impedance
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Membrane Fluidity*
  • Membrane Potentials*
  • Models, Chemical*
  • Models, Molecular*
  • Phosphatidylcholines / chemistry*
  • Solutions
  • Static Electricity
  • Stress, Mechanical
  • Surface Properties


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Solutions