Membrane Anchoring of α-Helical Proteins: Role of Tryptophan

J Phys Chem B. 2018 Jan 25;122(3):1185-1194. doi: 10.1021/acs.jpcb.7b11227. Epub 2018 Jan 11.


The function of membrane proteins relies on a defined orientation of protein relative to lipid. In apparent correlation to protein anchoring, tryptophan residues are enriched in the lipid headgroup region. To characterize the thermodynamic and structural basis of this relationship in α-helical membrane proteins, we examined the role of three conserved tryptophans in the folding of the heterodimeric integrin αIIbβ3 transmembrane (TM) complex in phospholipid bicelles and mammalian membranes. In the homogenous lipid environment of bicelles, tryptophan was replaceable by residues of distinct polarities. The appropriate polarity was guided by the electrostatic potential of the tryptophan surrounding, suggesting that tryptophan can complement diverse environments by adjusting the orientation of its anisotropic side chain to achieve site-specific anchoring. As a sole membrane anchor, tryptophan made a contribution of 0.4 kcal/mol to TM complex stability in bicelles. In membranes, it proved more difficult to replace tryptophan even by tyrosine, indicating a superior capacity to interact with heterogeneous lipids of biological membranes. Interestingly, at intracellular TM helix ends, where integrin activation is initiated, sequence motifs that interact with lipids via opposing polarity patterns were found to restrict TM helix orientations beyond tryptophan anchoring. In contrast to bicelles, phenylalanine became the least accepted substitute in membranes, demonstrating an increased role of the hydrophobic effect. Altogether, our study implicates a wide amphiphilic range of tryptophan, membrane complexity, and the hydrophobic effect to be important factors in tryptophan membrane anchoring.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Platelet Glycoprotein GPIIb-IIIa Complex / chemistry*
  • Platelet Glycoprotein GPIIb-IIIa Complex / isolation & purification
  • Platelet Glycoprotein GPIIb-IIIa Complex / metabolism*
  • Protein Structure, Secondary
  • Thermodynamics
  • Tryptophan / chemistry*
  • Tryptophan / metabolism*


  • Platelet Glycoprotein GPIIb-IIIa Complex
  • Tryptophan