Probing the lipid membrane dipole potential by atomic force microscopy

Biophys J. 2008 Dec;95(11):5193-9. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.108.136507. Epub 2008 Sep 19.


The electrostatic properties of biological membranes can be described by three parameters: the transmembrane potential, the membrane surface potential, and the membrane dipole potential. The first two are well characterized in terms of their magnitudes and biological effects. The dipole potential, however, is not well characterized. Various methods to measure the membrane dipole potential indirectly yield different values, and there is not even agreement on the source of the membrane dipole moment. This ambiguity impedes investigations into the biological effects of the membrane dipole moment, which should be substantial considering the large interfacial fields with which it is associated. Electrostatic analysis of phosphatidylcholine lipid membranes with the atomic force microscope reveals a repulsive force between the negatively charged probe tips and the zwitterionic lipids. This unexpected interaction has been analyzed quantitatively to reveal that the repulsion is due to a weak external field created by the internal membrane dipole potential. The analysis yields a dipole moment of 1.5 Debye per lipid with a dipole potential of +275 mV for supported phosphatidylcholine membranes. This new ability to quantitatively measure the membrane dipole moment in a noninvasive manner with nanometer scale spatial resolution will be useful in identifying the biological effects of the dipole potential.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Membrane Lipids / metabolism*
  • Membrane Potentials*
  • Microscopy, Atomic Force
  • Static Electricity


  • Membrane Lipids