Dynamics and Instabilities of Lipid Bilayer Membrane Shapes

Adv Colloid Interface Sci. 2014 Jun;208:76-88. doi: 10.1016/j.cis.2014.01.004. Epub 2014 Jan 25.


Biological membranes undergo constant shape remodeling involving the formation of highly curved structures. The lipid bilayer represents the fundamental architecture of the cellular membrane with its shapes determined by the Helfrich curvature bending energy. However, the dynamics of bilayer shape transitions, especially their modulation by membrane proteins, and the resulting shape instabilities, are still not well understood. Here, we review in a unifying manner several theories that describe the fluctuations (i.e. undulations) of bilayer shapes as well as their local coupling with lipid or protein density variation. The coupling between local membrane curvature and lipid density gives rise to a 'slipping mode' in addition to the conventional 'bending mode' for damping the membrane fluctuation. This leads to a number of interesting experimental phenomena regarding bilayer shape dynamics. More importantly, curvature-inducing proteins can couple with membrane shape and eventually render the membrane unstable. A criterion for membrane shape instability is derived from a linear stability analysis. The instability criterion reemphasizes the importance of membrane tension in regulating the stability and dynamics of membrane geometry. Recent progresses in understanding the role of membrane tension in regulating dynamical cellular processes are also reviewed. Protein density is emphasized as a key factor in regulating membrane shape transitions: a threshold density of curvature coupling proteins is required for inducing membrane morphology transitions.

Keywords: Curvature instability; Interleaflet friction; Membrane fluctuation; Membrane shape transition; Membrane tension; Protein density.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Anisotropy
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Cell Membrane / chemistry*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Cell Shape
  • Humans
  • Intracellular Membranes / chemistry*
  • Intracellular Membranes / metabolism
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Models, Biological*
  • Organelle Shape


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Membrane Proteins