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J Gen Physiol. 1995 Jul;106(1):67-84.

The relationship between membrane fluidity and permeabilities to water, solutes, ammonia, and protons.

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  • 1Childrens Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02132, USA.


Several barrier epithelia such as renal collecting duct, urinary bladder, and gastric mucosa maintain high osmotic pH and solute gradients between body compartments and the blood by means of apical membranes of exceptionally low permeabilities. Although the mechanisms underlying these low permeabilities have been only poorly defined, low fluidity of the apical membrane has been postulated. The solubility diffusion model predicts that lower membrane fluidity will reduce permeability by reducing the ability of permeant molecules to diffuse through the lipid bilayer. However, little data compare membrane fluidity with permeability properties, and it is unclear whether fluidity determines permeability to all, or only some substances. We therefore studied the permeabilities of a series of artificial large unilamellar vesicles (LUV) of eight different compositions, exhibiting a range of fluidities encountered in biological membranes. Cholesterol and sphingomyelin content and acyl chain saturation were varied to create a range of fluidities. LUV anisotropy was measured as steady state fluorescence polarization of the lipophilic probe DPH. LUV permeabilities were determined by monitoring concentration-dependent or pH-sensitive quenching of entrapped carboxyfluorescein on a stopped-flow fluorimeter. The relation between DPH anisotropy and permeability to water, urea, acetamide, and NH3 was well fit in each instance by single exponential functions (r > 0.96), with lower fluidity corresponding to lower permeability. By contrast, proton permeability correlated only weakly with fluidity. We conclude that membrane fluidity determines permeability to most nonionic substances and that transmembrane proton flux occurs in a manner distinct from flux of other substances.

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