Key cellular processes are frequently accompanied by protein-facilitated shape changes in the plasma membrane. N-BAR-domain protein modules generate curvature by means of complex interactions with the membrane surface. The way they assemble and the mechanism by which they operate are largely dependent on their binding density. Although the mechanism at lower densities has recently begun to emerge, how membrane scaffolds form at high densities remains unclear. By combining electron microscopy and multiscale simulations, we show that N-BAR proteins at high densities can transform a lipid vesicle into a 3D tubular network. We show that this process is a consequence of excess adhesive energy combined with the local stiffening of the membrane, which occurs in a narrow range of mechanical properties of both the membrane and the protein. We show that lipid diffusion is significantly reduced by protein binding at this density regime and even more in areas of high Gaussian curvature, indicating a potential effect on molecular transport in cells. Finally, we reveal that the breaking of the bilayer topology is accompanied by the nematic arrangement of the protein on the surface, a structural motif that likely drives the formation of reticular structures in living cells.
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