Transmembrane Helix Induces Membrane Fusion through Lipid Binding and Splay

The fusion of biological membranes may require splayed lipids whose tails transiently visit the headgroup region of the bilayer, a scenario suggested by molecular dynamics simulations. Here, we examined the lipid splay hypothesis experimentally by relating liposome fusion and lipid splay induced by model transmembrane domains (TMDs). Our results reveal that a conformationally flexible transmembrane helix promotes outer leaflet mixing and lipid splay more strongly than a conformationally rigid one. The lipid dependence of basal as well as of TMD-driven lipid mixing and splay suggests that the cone-shaped phosphatidylethanolamine stimulates basal fusion via enhancing lipid splay and that the negatively charged phosphatidylserine inhibits fusion via electrostatic repulsion. Phosphatidylserine also strongly differentiates basal and helix-driven fusion, which is related to its preferred interaction with the conformationally more flexible transmembrane helix. Thus, the contribution of a transmembrane helix to membrane fusion appears to depend on lipid binding, which results in lipid splay.