Sorting of lipids and proteins in membrane curvature gradients

Biophys J. 2009 Apr 8;96(7):2676-88. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2008.11.067.


The sorting of lipids and proteins in cellular trafficking pathways is a process of central importance in maintaining compartmentalization in eukaryotic cells. However, the mechanisms behind these sorting phenomena are currently far from being understood. Among several mechanistic suggestions, membrane curvature has been invoked as a means to segregate lipids and proteins in cellular sorting centers. To assess this hypothesis, we investigate the sorting of lipid analog dye trace components between highly curved tubular membranes and essentially flat membranes of giant unilamellar vesicles. Our experimental findings indicate that intracellular lipid sorting, contrary to frequent assumptions, is unlikely to occur by lipids fitting into membrane regions of appropriate curvature. This observation is explained in the framework of statistical mechanical lattice models that show that entropy, rather than curvature energy, dominates lipid distribution in the absence of strongly preferential lateral intermolecular interactions. Combined with previous findings of curvature induced phase segregation, we conclude that lipid cooperativity is required to enable efficient sorting. In contrast to lipid analog dyes, the peripheral membrane binding protein Cholera toxin subunit B is effectively curvature-sorted. The sorting of Cholera toxin subunit B is rationalized by statistical models. We discuss the implications of our findings for intracellular sorting mechanisms.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Carbocyanines / metabolism
  • Cattle
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cholera Toxin / metabolism
  • Fluorescence
  • Fluorescence Recovery After Photobleaching
  • Fluorescent Dyes / metabolism
  • Intracellular Membranes / metabolism
  • Lipid Metabolism*
  • Microspheres
  • Phosphatidylcholines / metabolism
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Unilamellar Liposomes / metabolism


  • Carbocyanines
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Proteins
  • Unilamellar Liposomes
  • Cholera Toxin
  • 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoylphosphatidylcholine