Spherical Nanovesicles Transform into a Multitude of Nonspherical Shapes

R Ghosh and V Satarifard and A Grafmuller and R Lipowsky, NANO LETTERS, 19, 7703-7711 (2019).

DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b02646

Nanovesicles are closed, bubblelike surfaces with a diameter between 20 and 200 nm, formed by lipid bilayers and biomembranes. Electron microscopy (EM) studies have shown that these vesicles can attain both spherical and nonspherical shapes. One disadvantage of EM methods is that they provide only a single snapshot of each vesicle. Here, we use molecular dynamics simulations to monitor the morphological transformations of individual nanovesicles. We start with the assembly of spherical vesicles that enclose a certain volume of water and contain a certain total number of lipids. When we reduce their volume, the spherical vesicles are observed to transform into a multitude of nonspherical shapes such as oblates and stomatocytes as well as prolates and dumbbells. This surprising polymorphism can be controlled by redistributing a small fraction of lipids between the inner and outer leaflets of the bilayer membranes. As a consequence, the inner and the outer leaflets experience different mechanical tensions. Small changes in the vesicle volume reduce the overall bilayer tension by 2 orders of magnitude, thereby producing tensionless bilayers. In addition, we show how to determine, for a certain total number of lipids, the unique spherical vesicle for which both leaflet tensions vanish individually. We also compute the local spontaneous curvature of the spherical membranes by identifying the first moment of the spherically symmetric stress profiles across the lipid bilayers with the nanoscopic torque as derived from curvature elasticity. Our study can be extended to other types of lipid membranes and sheds new light on cellular nanovesicles such as exosomes, which are increasingly used as biomarkers and drug delivery systems.

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