Cholesterol and POPC segmental order parameters in lipid membranes: solid state 1H–13C NMR and MD simulation studies
The concentration of cholesterol in cell membranes affects membrane fluidity and thickness, and might regulate different processes such as the formation of lipid rafts. Since interpreting experimental data from biological membranes is rather intricate, investigations on simple models with biological relevance are necessary to understand the natural systems. We study the effect of cholesterol on the molecular structure of multi-lamellar vesicles (MLVs) composed of 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine (POPC), a phospholipid ubiquitous in cell membranes, with compositions in the range 0–60 mol% cholesterol. Order parameters, |SCH|, are experimentally determined by using 1H–13C solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy with segmental detail for all parts of both the cholesterol and POPC molecules, namely the ring system and alkyl chain of the sterol, as well as the glycerol backbone, choline headgroup and the sn-1 and sn-2 acyl chains of POPC. With increasing cholesterol concentration the acyl chains gradually adopt a more extended conformation while the orientation and dynamics of the polar groups are rather unaffected. Additionally, we perform classical molecular dynamics simulations on virtual bilayers mimicking the POPC–cholesterol MLVs investigated by NMR. Good agreement between experiments and simulations is found for the cholesterol alignment in the bilayer and for the |SCH| profiles of acyl chains below 15 mol% cholesterol. Deviations occur for the choline headgroup and glycerol backbone parts of POPC, as well as for the phospholipid and cholesterol alkyl chains at higher cholesterol concentrations. The unprecedented detail of the NMR data enables a more complete comparison between simulations and experiments on POPC–cholesterol bilayers and may aid in developing more realistic model descriptions of biological membranes.