Membrane Lipids and Bilayer Membranes

James Richard Fromm


The simpler lipids are used primarily for energy storage by living organisms, but more complex lipids are used to form biological membranes. The most important and abundant class of biological membrane lipids is the class of phospholipids. Most phospholipids are derived from glycerol and so they are called phosphoglycerides. The amino alcohol sphingosine gives rise to sphingomyelin, the only significant membrane phospholipid which is not a phosphoglyceride.

In phosphoglycerides, the hydroxy groups at C-1 and C-2 of glycerol are esterified to fatty acids while the hydroxy group at C-3 of glycerol is esterified to phosphoric acid; this forms diacylglycerol-3-phosphates. The two fatty acids found in a diacylglycerol-3-phosphate molecule need not be the same. Diacylglycerol-3-phosphates are only a minor constituent of membranes. The major constituents of membranes are derivatives of diacylglycerol-3-phosphates in which the esterified phosphate also forms an ester linkage with an alcohol. The alcohols commonly found in phosphoglycerides include glycerol, ethanolamine, and choline.

The glycolipids are lipids which contain sugars. Glycolipids are derived from sphingosine, as is the phospholipid sphingomyelin. Glycolipids contain no esterified phosphate.

Both phospholipids and glycolipids are amphipathic molecules, that is, molecules in which one end is hydrophobic and one end is hydrophilic. The fatty acid chains form the hydrophobic end of the molecule while the polar glycerol-phosphate-alcohol or sphingosine-sugar portion forms the hydrophilic end of the molecule.

Bilayer Membranes

When amphipathic molecules are placed in aqueous solution, their hydrophobic tails attempt to orient themselves toward each other. The two ways in which they do so are to form small spherical micelles or to form a planar lipid bilayer. A micelle is a small structure, generally less than two micrometer in diameter, while a lipid bilayer typically has a thickness of about 0.5 micrometer and can have an area of several square millimeters. Sonication or other treatment of lipids can produce spherical liposomes, or lipid vesicles, which contain aqueous solution within an enclosing lipid bilayer. Liposomes are considerably larger than micelles.

Both liposomes and planar bilayer membranes can be prepared from simple solutions of phospholipids such as the diacylglycerol-3-phosphatidyl cholines. Studies of such artificially prepared membranes have given us much insight into the functions and operation of membranes in living cells. Simple bilayer membranes are highly permeable to water molecules, while ions such as sodium ion and potassium ion can traverse them only more slowly (by nine orders of magnitude!). For small molecules, the rates of permeation through simple bilayer membranes increase with their solubility in nonpolar solvents relative to their solubility in water. These observations strongly suggest that transfer of substances through a membrane requires desolvation, transfer through the anhydrous membrane interior, and then resolvation on the other side of the membrane.

The differences in transport behavior between biological membranes and simple bilayer membranes are now believed to be due to the incorporation of protein molecules or other specifically transporting molecules directly into or onto the surface of a bilayer cell membrane. Considerable research in biology and in chemistry is being directed toward the transport properties of membranes.


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Copyright 1997 James R. Fromm