Transbilayer diffusion of phospholipids: dependence on headgroup structure and acyl chain length

Reynold Homan, Henry J. Pownall

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211 Scopus citations


The kinetics and thermodynamics of the transmembrane movement (flip-flop) of fluorescent analogs of phosphatidic acid (PA), phosphatidylglycerol (PG), phosphatidylcholine(PC), and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) were investigated to determine the contributions of headgroup composition and acyl chain length to phospholipid flip-flop. The phospholipid derivatives containing n-octanoic, n-decanoic or n-dodecanoic acid in the sn-1 position and 9-(1-pyrenyl)nonanoic acid in the sn-2 position were incorporated at 3 mol% inot sonicated single-bilayer vesicles of 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycerol-3-phosphocholine (POPC). The kinetics of diffusion of the pyrene-labeled phospholipids from the outer and inner monolayers of the host vesicles to a large pool of POPC acceptor vesicles were monitored by the time-dependent decrease of pyrene excimer fluorescence. The observed kinetics of transfer were biexponential, with a fast component due to the spontaneous transfer of pyrenyl phospholipids in the outer monolayer of labeled vesicles and a slower component due to diffusion of pyrenyl phospholipid from the inner monolayer of the same vesicles. Intervesicular transfer rates decreased approx. 8-fold for every two carbons added to the firs acyl chain. Corrrespondingly, the free energy of activation for transfer increased approx. 1.3 kcal/mol. With the exception of PE, the intervesicular transfer rates for the different headgroups within a homologous series were nearly the same, with the PC derivative being the fastest. Transfer rates for the PE derivatives were 5- to 7-fold slower than the rates observed for PC. Phospholipid flip-flop, in contrast, was strongly dependent on headgroup composition with a smaller dependence on acyl chain length. At pH 7.4, flip-flop rates increased in the order PC < PG < PA < PE, where the rates for PE were at least 10-times greater than those of the homologous PC derivative. Activation energies for flip-flop were large, and ranged from 38 kcal/mol for the longest acyl chain derivative of PC to 25 kcal/mol for the PE derivatives. Titration of the PA headgroup at pH 4.0 produced an approx. 500-fold increase in the flip-flop rate of PA, while the activatiion energy decreased 10 kcal/mol. Increasing acyl chain length reduced phospholipid flip-flop rates, with the greatest change observed for the PC analogs, which exhibited an approx. 2-fold decrease in flip-flop rate for every two methylene carbons added to the acyl chain at the sn-1 position. Our results suggest that the insolubility of the polar headgroup in the membrane interior is the major barrier to flip-flop. The contribution of the apolar portion of the phospholipid to flip-flop is less significant.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)155-166
Number of pages12
JournalBBA - Biomembranes
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 18 1988


  • (Fluorescent analogue)
  • Membrane
  • Phospholipid flip-flop
  • Polar headgroup
  • Transbilayer diffusion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cell Biology
  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Medicine(all)


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