The effectiveness of styrene-maleic acid (SMA) copolymers for solubilisation of integral membrane proteins from SMA-accessible and SMA-resistant membranes

Biochim Biophys Acta Biomembr. 2017 Oct;1859(10):2133-2143. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamem.2017.07.011. Epub 2017 Jul 24.


Solubilisation of biological lipid bilayer membranes for analysis of their protein complement has traditionally been carried out using detergents, but there is increasing interest in the use of amphiphilic copolymers such as styrene maleic acid (SMA) for the solubilisation, purification and characterisation of integral membrane proteins in the form of protein/lipid nanodiscs. Here we survey the effectiveness of various commercially-available formulations of the SMA copolymer in solubilising Rhodobacter sphaeroides reaction centres (RCs) from photosynthetic membranes. We find that formulations of SMA with a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of styrene to maleic acid are almost as effective as detergent in solubilising RCs, with the best solubilisation by short chain variants (<30kDa weight average molecular weight). The effectiveness of 10kDa 2:1 and 3:1 formulations of SMA to solubilise RCs gradually declined when genetically-encoded coiled-coil bundles were used to artificially tether normally monomeric RCs into dimeric, trimeric and tetrameric multimers. The ability of SMA to solubilise reaction centre-light harvesting 1 (RC-LH1) complexes from densely packed and highly ordered photosynthetic membranes was uniformly low, but could be increased through a variety of treatments to increase the lipid:protein ratio. However, proteins isolated from such membranes comprised clusters of complexes in small membrane patches rather than individual proteins. We conclude that short-chain 2:1 and 3:1 formulations of SMA are the most effective in solubilising integral membrane proteins, but that solubilisation efficiencies are strongly influenced by the size of the target protein and the density of packing of proteins in the membrane.

Keywords: Detergent; Light harvesting; Membrane protein; Nanodisc; Reaction centre; Styrene—maleic acid.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Detergents / chemistry
  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes / chemistry
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry
  • Lipids / chemistry
  • Maleates / chemistry*
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Membranes / chemistry*
  • Polymers / chemistry*
  • Rhodobacter sphaeroides / metabolism
  • Styrene / chemistry*


  • Detergents
  • Light-Harvesting Protein Complexes
  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Lipids
  • Maleates
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Polymers
  • Styrene
  • maleic acid