Lipid ion channels and the role of proteins

Acc Chem Res. 2013 Dec 17;46(12):2966-76. doi: 10.1021/ar4000604. Epub 2013 Jul 31.


In the absence of proteins, synthetic lipid membranes can display quantized conduction events for ions that are virtually indistinguishable from those of protein channels. The phenomenological similarities between typical conductances are striking: they are of equal order and show similar lifetime distributions and current histograms. They can include conduction bursts, flickering, and multistep conductance. Lipid channels can be gated by voltage and blocked by drugs. They respond to changes in lateral membrane tension and temperature. Thus, they behave like voltage-gated, temperature-gated, and mechano-sensitive protein channels, or like receptors. The similarity between lipid and protein channels poses an important problem for the interpretation of protein channel data. For example, the Hodgkin-Huxley theory for nerve pulse conduction requires a selective mechanism for the conduction of sodium and potassium ions. To this end, the lipid membrane must act both as a capacitor and as an insulator. Nonselective ion conductance by mechanisms other than the gated protein channels challenges the proposed mechanism for pulse propagation. Nevertheless, textbooks rarely describe the properties of the lipid membrane surrounding the proteins in their discussions of membrane models. These similarities lead to important questions: Do these similarities in lipid and protein channels result from a common mechanism, or are these similarities fortuitous? What distinguishes protein channels from lipid channels, if anything? In this Account, we document experimental and theoretical findings that show the similarity between lipid and protein channels. We discuss important cases where protein channel function strongly correlates with the properties of the lipid. Based on statistical thermodynamics simulations, we discuss how such correlations could come about. We suggest that proteins can act as catalysts for lipid channel formation and that this hypothesis can explain some of the unexplained correlations between protein and lipid membrane function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Ion Channels / chemistry*
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Temperature


  • Ion Channels
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Proteins