Biological membranes constitute boundaries of cells and cell organelles. These membranes are soft fluid interfaces whose thermodynamic states are dictated by bending moduli, induced curvature fields, and thermal fluctuations. Recently, there has been a flood of experimental evidence highlighting active roles for these structures in many cellular processes ranging from trafficking of cargo to cell motility. It is believed that the local membrane curvature, which is continuously altered due to its interactions with myriad proteins and other macromolecules attached to its surface, holds the key to the emergent functionality in these cellular processes. Mechanisms at the atomic scale are dictated by protein-lipid interaction strength, lipid composition, lipid distribution in the vicinity of the protein, shape and amino acid composition of the protein, and its amino acid contents. The specificity of molecular interactions together with the cooperativity of multiple proteins induce and stabilize complex membrane shapes at the mesoscale. These shapes span a wide spectrum ranging from the spherical plasma membrane to the complex cisternae of the Golgi apparatus. Mapping the relation between the protein-induced deformations at the molecular scale and the resulting mesoscale morphologies is key to bridging cellular experiments across the various length scales. In this review, we focus on the theoretical and computational methods used to understand the phenomenology underlying protein-driven membrane remodeling. Interactions at the molecular scale can be computationally probed by all atom and coarse grained molecular dynamics (MD, CGMD), as well as dissipative particle dynamics (DPD) simulations, which we only describe in passing. We choose to focus on several continuum approaches extending the Canham - Helfrich elastic energy model for membranes to include the effect of curvature-inducing proteins and explore the conformational phase space of such systems. In this description, the protein is expressed in the form of a spontaneous curvature field. The approaches include field theoretical methods limited to the small deformation regime, triangulated surfaces and particle-based computational models to investigate the large-deformation regimes observed in the natural state of many biological membranes. Applications of these methods to understand the properties of biological membranes in homogeneous and inhomogeneous environments of proteins, whose underlying curvature fields are either isotropic or anisotropic, are discussed. The diversity in the curvature fields elicits a rich variety of morphological states, including tubes, discs, branched tubes, and caveola. Mapping the thermodynamic stability of these states as a function of tuning parameters such as concentration and strength of curvature induction of the proteins is discussed. The relative stabilities of these self-organized shapes are examined through free-energy calculations. The suite of methods discussed here can be tailored to applications in specific cellular settings such as endocytosis during cargo trafficking and tubulation of filopodial structures in migrating cells, which makes these methods a powerful complement to experimental studies.
Keywords: Helfrich Hamiltonian; Monte Carlo; cell membrane; continuum models; free energy; hydrophilicity; hydrophobicity; lipid bilayer; molecular dynamics; self-assembly; triangulated surfaces.