Direct observation of the nanoscale dynamics of membrane lipids in a living cell

Nature. 2009 Feb 26;457(7233):1159-62. doi: 10.1038/nature07596. Epub 2008 Dec 21.


Cholesterol-mediated lipid interactions are thought to have a functional role in many membrane-associated processes such as signalling events. Although several experiments indicate their existence, lipid nanodomains ('rafts') remain controversial owing to the lack of suitable detection techniques in living cells. The controversy is reflected in their putative size of 5-200 nm, spanning the range between the extent of a protein complex and the resolution limit of optical microscopy. Here we demonstrate the ability of stimulated emission depletion (STED) far-field fluorescence nanoscopy to detect single diffusing (lipid) molecules in nanosized areas in the plasma membrane of living cells. Tuning of the probed area to spot sizes approximately 70-fold below the diffraction barrier reveals that unlike phosphoglycerolipids, sphingolipids and glycosylphosphatidylinositol-anchored proteins are transiently ( approximately 10-20 ms) trapped in cholesterol-mediated molecular complexes dwelling within <20-nm diameter areas. The non-invasive optical recording of molecular time traces and fluctuation data in tunable nanoscale domains is a powerful new approach to study the dynamics of biomolecules in living cells.

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cell Survival
  • Cholesterol / analysis
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Diffusion
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Ethanolamines / analysis
  • Ethanolamines / metabolism
  • Glycosylphosphatidylinositols / metabolism
  • Membrane Lipids / analysis*
  • Membrane Lipids / metabolism*
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence / methods*
  • Nanotechnology / methods*
  • Sphingomyelins / analysis
  • Sphingomyelins / metabolism
  • Time Factors


  • Ethanolamines
  • Glycosylphosphatidylinositols
  • Membrane Lipids
  • Sphingomyelins
  • phosphorylethanolamine
  • Cholesterol