Permeation of protons, potassium ions, and small polar molecules through phospholipid bilayers as a function of membrane thickness

Biophys J. 1996 Jan;70(1):339-48. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(96)79575-9.


Two mechanisms have been proposed to account for solute permeation of lipid bilayers. Partitioning into the hydrophobic phase of the bilayer, followed by diffusion, is accepted by many for the permeation of water and other small neutral solutes, but transient pores have also been proposed to account for both water and ionic solute permeation. These two mechanisms make distinctively different predictions about the permeability coefficient as a function of bilayer thickness. Whereas the solubility-diffusion mechanism predicts only a modest variation related to bilayer thickness, the pore model predicts an exponential relationship. To test these models, we measured the permeability of phospholipid bilayers to protons, potassium ions, water, urea, and glycerol. Bilayers were prepared as liposomes, and thickness was varied systematically by using unsaturated lipids with chain lengths ranging from 14 to 24 carbon atoms. The permeability coefficient of water and neutral polar solutes displayed a modest dependence on bilayer thickness, with an approximately linear fivefold decrease as the carbon number varied from 14 to 24 atoms. In contrast, the permeability to protons and potassium ions decreased sharply by two orders of magnitude between 14 and 18 carbon atoms, and leveled off, when the chain length was further extended to 24 carbon atoms. The results for water and the neutral permeating solutes are best explained by the solubility-diffusion mechanism. The results for protons and potassium ions in shorter-chain lipids are consistent with the transient pore model, but better fit the theoretical line predicted by the solubility-diffusion model at longer chain lengths.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Biophysics
  • Diffusion
  • Glycerol / chemistry
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Models, Chemical
  • Permeability
  • Phospholipids / chemistry*
  • Potassium / chemistry*
  • Protons
  • Solubility
  • Urea / chemistry
  • Water / chemistry


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Phospholipids
  • Protons
  • Water
  • Urea
  • Glycerol
  • Potassium