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Patterns of Flexible Nanotubes Formed by Liquid-Ordered and Liquid-Disordered Membranes

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posted on 10.02.2016, 16:03 by Yonggang Liu, Jaime Agudo-Canalejo, Andrea Grafmüller, Rumiana Dimova, Reinhard Lipowsky
Biological membranes form both intra- and intercellular nanotubes that are used for molecular sorting within single cells and for long-distance connections between different cells. Such nanotubes can also develop from synthetic lipid bilayers in their fluid state. Each nanotube has a large area-to-volume ratio and stably encloses a water channel that is thereby shielded from its surroundings. The tubes are rather flexible and can easily change both their length and their conformation. Here, we study nanotubes formed by liquid-ordered (Lo) and liquid-disordered (Ld) membranes with three lipid components exposed to aqueous mixtures of two polymers, polyethylene glycol (PEG) and dextran. Both types of membranes form striking patterns of nanotubes when we reduce the volume of giant vesicles by osmotic deflation, thereby exposing the two bilayer leaflets of the membranes to polymer solutions of different composition. With decreasing volume, three different patterns are observed corresponding to three distinct vesicle morphologies that reflect the interplay of spontaneous curvature and aqueous phase separation. We show that tube nucleation and growth is governed by two kinetic pathways and that the tubes undergo a novel shape transformation from necklace-like to cylindrical tubes at a certain critical tube length. We deduce the spontaneous curvature generated by the membrane-polymer interactions from the observed vesicle morphologies using three different and independent methods of image analysis. The spontaneous curvature of the Ld membranes is found to be 4.7 times larger than that of the Lo membranes. We also show that these curvatures are generated by weak PEG adsorption onto the membranes, with a binding affinity of about 1.6 kBT per chain. In this way, our study provides a direct connection between nanoscopic membrane shapes and molecular interactions. Our approach is rather general and can be applied to many other systems of interest such as polymersomes or membrane-bound proteins and peptides.