Splaying of Aliphatic Tails Plays a Central Role in Barrier Crossing During Liposome Fusion

D Mirjanian and AN Dickey and JH Hoh and TB Woolf and MJ Stevens, JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL CHEMISTRY B, 114, 11061-11068 (2010).

DOI: 10.1021/jp1055182

The fusion between two lipid bilayers involves crossing a complicated energy landscape. The limiting barrier in the process appears to be between two closely opposed bilayers and the intermediate state where the outer leaflets are fused. We have performed molecular dynamics simulations to characterize the free energy barrier for the fusion of two liposomes and to examine the molecular details of barrier crossing. To capture the slow dynamics of fusion, a model using coarse-grained representations of lipids was used. The fusion between pairs of liposomes was simulated for four systems: DPPC, DOPC, a 3:1 mixture of DPPC/DPPE, and an asymmetric lipid tail system in which one tail of DPPC was reduced to half the length (ASTail). The weighted histogram method was used to compute the free energy as a function of separation distance. The relative barrier heights for these systems was found to be ASTail DPPC >> DPPC/DPPE > DOPC, in agreement with experimental observations. Further, the free energy curves for all four can be overlaid on a single curve by plotting the free energy versus the surface separation (differing only in the point of fusion). These simulations also confirm that the two main contributions to the free energy barrier are the removal of water between the vesicles and the deformation of the vesicle. The most prominent molecular detail of barrier crossing in all cases examined was the splaying of lipid tails, where initially a single splayed lipid formed a bridge between the two outer leaflets that promotes additional lipid mixing between the vesicles and eventually leads to fusion. The tail splay appears to be closely connected to the energetics of the process. For example, the high barrier for the ASTail is the result of a smaller distance between terminal methyl groups in the splayed molecule. The shortening of this distance requires the liposomes to be closer together, which significantly increases the cost of water removal and bilayer deformation. Before tail splay can initiate fusion, contact must occur between a tail end and the external water. In isolated vesicles, the contact fraction is correlated to the fusogenicity difference between DPPC and DOPC. Moreover, for planar bilayers, the contact fraction is much lower for DPPC, which is consistent with its lack of fusion in giant vesicles. The simulation results show the key roles of lipid tail dynamics in governing the fusion energy landscape.

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