Structural determinants of water permeability through the lipid membrane

J Gen Physiol. 2008 Jan;131(1):69-76. doi: 10.1085/jgp.200709848.


Despite intense study over many years, the mechanisms by which water and small nonelectrolytes cross lipid bilayers remain unclear. While prior studies of permeability through membranes have focused on solute characteristics, such as size, polarity, and partition coefficient in hydrophobic solvent, we focus here on water permeability in seven single component bilayers composed of different lipids, five with phosphatidylcholine headgroups and different chain lengths and unsaturation, one with a phosphatidylserine headgroup, and one with a phosphatidylethanolamine headgroup. We find that water permeability correlates most strongly with the area/lipid and is poorly correlated with bilayer thickness and other previously determined structural and mechanical properties of these single component bilayers. These results suggest a new model for permeability that is developed in the accompanying theoretical paper in which the area occupied by the lipid is the major determinant and the hydrocarbon thickness is a secondary determinant. Cholesterol was also incorporated into DOPC bilayers and X-ray diffuse scattering was used to determine quantitative structure with the result that the area occupied by DOPC in the membrane decreases while bilayer thickness increases in a correlated way because lipid volume does not change. The water permeability decreases with added cholesterol and it correlates in a different way from pure lipids with area per lipid, bilayer thickness, and also with area compressibility.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane Permeability
  • Cholesterol / analysis
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Membranes, Artificial*
  • Models, Biological
  • Permeability
  • Phosphatidylcholines / analysis
  • Water*


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Membranes, Artificial
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Water
  • Cholesterol
  • 1,2-oleoylphosphatidylcholine