Cholesterol in phospholipid bilayers: positions and orientations inside membranes with different unsaturation degrees
Cholesterol is an essential component of all animal cell membranes and plays an important role in maintaining the membrane structure and physical–chemical properties necessary for correct cell functioning. The presence of cholesterol is believed to be responsible for domain formation (lipid rafts) due to different interactions of cholesterol with saturated and unsaturated lipids. In order to get detailed atomistic insight into the behaviour of cholesterol in bilayers composed of lipids with varying degrees of unsaturation, we have carried out a series of molecular dynamics simulations of saturated and polyunsaturated lipid bilayers with different contents of cholesterol, as well as well-tempered metadynamics simulations with a single cholesterol molecule in these bilayers. From these simulations we have determined distributions of cholesterol across the bilayer, its orientational properties, free energy profiles, and specific interactions of molecular groups able to form hydrogen bonds. Both molecular dynamics and metadynamics simulations showed that the most unsaturated bilayer with 22:6 fatty acid chains shows behaviour which is most different from other lipids. In this bilayer, cholesterol is relatively often found in a “flipped” configuration with the hydroxyl group oriented towards the membrane middle plane. This bilayer has also the highest (least negative) binding free energy among liquid phase bilayers, and the lowest reorientation barrier. Furthermore, cholesterol molecules in this bilayer are often found to form head-to-tail contacts which may lead to specific clustering behaviour. Overall, our simulations support ideas that there can be a subtle interconnection between the contents of highly unsaturated fatty acids and cholesterol, deficiency or excess of each of them is related to many human afflictions and diseases.