Bicelles: A natural 'molecular goniometer' for structural, dynamical and topological studies of molecules in membranes.

PMID 19248817


Major biological processes occur at the biological membrane. One of the great challenges is to understand the function of chemical or biological molecules inside the membrane; as well of those involved in membrane trafficking. This requires obtaining a complete picture of the in situ structure and dynamics as well as the topology and orientation of these molecules in the membrane lipid bilayer. These led to the creation of several innovative models of biological membranes in order to investigate the structure and dynamics of amphiphilic molecules, as well as integral membrane proteins having single or multiple transmembrane segments. Because the determination of the structure, dynamics and topology of molecules in membranes requires a macroscopic alignment of the system, a new membrane model called 'bicelles' that represents a crossover between lipid vesicles and classical micelles has become very popular due to its property of spontaneous self-orientation in magnetic fields. In addition, crucial factors involved in mimicking natural membranes, such as sample hydration, pH and salinity limits, are easy to control in bicelle systems. Bicelles are composed of mixtures of long chain (14-18 carbons) and short chain phospholipids (6-8 carbons) hydrated up to 98% with buffers and may adopt various morphologies depending on lipid composition, temperature and hydration. We have been developing bicelle systems under the form of nano-discs made of lipids with saturated or biphenyl-containing fatty acyl chains. Depending on the lipid nature, these membranous nano-discs may be macroscopically oriented with their normal perpendicular or parallel to the magnetic field, providing a natural 'molecular goniometer' for structural and topological studies, especially in the field of NMR. Bicelles can also be spun at the magic angle and lead to the 3D structural determination of molecules in membranes.

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