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J Bioenerg Biomembr. 1987 Oct;19(5):457-79.

Proton permeation of lipid bilayers.

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  • Department of Zoology, University of California, Davis 95616.


Proton permeation of the lipid bilayer barrier has two unique features. First, permeability coefficients measured at neutral pH ranges are six to seven orders of magnitude greater than expected from knowledge of other monovalent cations. Second, proton conductance across planar lipid bilayers varies at most by a factor of 10 when pH is varied from near 1 to near 11. Two mechanisms have been proposed to account for this anomalous behavior: proton conductance related to contaminants of lipid bilayers, and proton translocation along transient hydrogen-bonded chains (tHBC) of associated water molecules in the membrane. The weight of evidence suggests that trace contaminants may contribute to proton conductance across planar lipid membranes at certain pH ranges, but cannot account for the anomalous proton flux in liposome systems. Two new results will be reported here which were designed to test the tHBC model. These include measurements of relative proton/potassium permeability in the gramicidin channel, and plots of proton flux against the magnitude of pH gradients. (1) The relative permeabilities of protons and potassium through the gramicidin channel, which contains a single strand of hydrogen-bonded water molecules, were found to differ by at least four orders of magnitude when measured at neutral pH ranges. This result demonstrates that a hydrogen-bonded chain of water molecules can provide substantial discrimination between protons and other cations. It was also possible to calculate that if approximately 7% of bilayer water was present in a transient configuration similar to that of the gramicidin channel, it could account for the measured proton flux. (2) The plot of proton conductance against pH gradient across liposome membranes was superlinear, a result that is consistent with one of three alternative tHBC models for proton conductance described by Nagle elsewhere in this volume.

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