The physical chemistry of cholesterol solubility in bile. Relationship to gallstone formation and dissolution in man

J Clin Invest. 1978 Apr;61(4):998-1026. doi: 10.1172/JCI109025.


We determined the maximum solubilities of cholesterol in aqueous conjugated bile salt-egg lecithin-cholesterol systems as a function of several physical-chemical variables including those of physiological importance employing phase equilibria techniques. Equilibration rates are influenced by time and the method of sample preparation in that metastable supersaturation is readily induced at high bile salt: lecithin ratios, and equilibrium saturation by dissolution is achieved sluggisly at low bile salt:lecithin ratios. Equilibrium values for cholesterol saturation vary with the bile salt species, bile salt: lecithin ratio, temperature, ionic strength, and, in particular, with the total concentration of biliary lipids. Within physiological bile salt:lecithin ratios at 37 degreesC the influence of bile salt type and ionic strength is small, whereas the effects of bile salt:lecithin ratio and the total lipid concentration are major factors. We plotted on triangular coordinates a family of cholesterol solubility curves for each total lipid concentration (0.30--30 g/dl) and computed fifth-degree polynomial equations for each curve. With both the curves and the polynomial equations the "per cent cholesterol saturation" of fasting gallbladder and hepatic biles from patients with and without gallstones was calculated and both methods gave similar values. These results deomonstrate that by employing cholesterol saturation values appropriate to the total lipid concentration (range 0.2--24.9 g/dl) of individual biles, all cholesterol stone patients have supersaturated gallbladder biles, (mean, 132% [normal weight individuals], and 199% [morbidly obese individuals]). With controls and pigment stone patients the mean values were 95 and 98%, respectively, and in both approximately 50% of biles were supersaturated. Fasting hepatic biles were significantly more supersaturated than gallbladder biles (means 228--273%). Cholesterol monohydrate crystals were found in the majority of gallbladder (83%) and hepatic (58%) biles of cholesterol gallstone patients but were not observed in pigment stone patients or controls. We conclude that of the several factors in addition to the bile salt:lecithin ratios which can influence the cholesterol saturation of bile the total lipid concentration is the predominant determinant physiologically. Our results demonstrate that (a) metastable supersaturation is frequent in both normal and abnormal biles, (b) cholesterol gallstone patients have supersaturated gallbladder and hepatic biles without exception, and (c) the predominant driving force for cholesterol precipitation appears to be the absolute degree of cholesterol supersaturation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Bile / physiology*
  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Cholelithiasis / physiopathology*
  • Cholesterol*
  • Humans
  • Micelles
  • Osmolar Concentration
  • Phosphatidylcholines*
  • Solubility
  • Temperature
  • Thermodynamics


  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Micelles
  • Phosphatidylcholines
  • Cholesterol