Physical effects underlying the transition from
primitive to modern cell membranes
Itay Budina,band Jack W. Szostaka,b,1
aHoward Hughes Medical Institute, and
Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 02114
bDepartment of Molecular Biology, and the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology,
Edited by Gerald F. Joyce, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, and approved February 17, 2011 (received for review January 10, 2011)
To understand the emergence of Darwinian evolution, it is neces-
sary to identify physical mechanisms that enabled primitive cells to
compete with one another. Whereas all modern cell membranes
are composed primarily of diacyl or dialkyl glycerol phospholipids,
the first cell membranes are thought to have self-assembled from
simple, single-chain lipids synthesized in the environment. We
asked what selective advantage could have driven the transition
from primitive to modern membranes, especially during early
stages characterized by low levels of membrane phospholipid.
Here we demonstrate that surprisingly low levels of phospholipids
can drive protocell membrane growth during competition for
single-chain lipids. Growth results from the decreasing fatty acid
efflux from membranes with increasing phospholipid content. The
ability to synthesize phospholipids from single-chain substrates
would have therefore been highly advantageous for early cells
competingfor a limited supplyof lipids. Weshow that the resulting
increase in membrane phospholipid content would have led to a
cascade of new selective pressures for the evolution of metabolic
and transport machinery to overcome the reduced membrane per-
meability of diacyl lipid membranes. The evolution of phospholipid
membranes could thus have been a deterministic outcome of
intrinsic physical processes and a key driving force for early cellular
origin of life ∣ ribozymes ∣ coevolution
derivatives that were present in the prebiotic environment (1, 2).
Membranes composed of such amphiphiles are permeable to
polar nutrients such as nucleotides (3) and feature the dynamic
properties necessary for spontaneous growth and division (2, 4).
The high permeability of fatty-acid-based membranes is consis-
tent with a heterotrophic model for early cells, in which chemical
building blocks are synthesized in the environment and passively
diffuse across the cell membrane to participate in replication. All
modern cells synthesize phospholipids (or sulfolipids in rare
exceptions; refs. 5 and 6) with two hydrophobic chains as their
primary membrane lipids. Phospholipid membranes prevent the
rapid permeation of ions and polar molecules, allowing modern
cells to retain internally synthesized metabolites and to control all
import and export. The evolution of phospholipid membranes
must have therefore mirrored the emergence of metabolic and
transport machinery during early cellular evolution.
This transition from single-chain lipids to phospholipids had
to be gradual, both to allow for the coevolution of metabolic
and transport machinery and because of the initial inefficiency
of nascent catalysts (e.g., ribozymes). Hence, the selective advan-
tage associated with phospholipid synthesis had to apply to small
differences in phospholipid content in order to drive this transi-
tion. What selective advantage could be conferred by the low
levels of phospholipid that must have been present at the begin-
ning of this process? Our laboratory has previously demonstrated
that populations of fatty acid vesicles, representing primitive
cellular compartments (protocells), are able to compete directly
with each other via the exchange of fatty acid monomers (7).
he first cell membranes are likely to have formed from simple,
single-chain lipids such as short-chain fatty acids and their
These exchange processes allow some vesicles to grow at the
expense of others, e.g., RNA-induced osmotic swelling causes
vesicles to grow by incorporating fatty acids from empty vesicles.
Here we asked whether low levels of phospholipids, potentially
synthesized by genomically encoded catalysts (e.g., ribozymes),
could also drive competitive growth and therefore provide a clear
selective pressure for the evolution of modern cell membranes.
We were motivated by previous experiments suggesting that
phospholipid-containing micelles can alter the fatty acid equili-
brium between vesicles and micelles (8) and that pure phospha-
tidylcholine vesicles disrupt neighboring oleate vesicles (9).
Phospholipid-Driven Growth of Fatty Acid Vesicles. To address the
hypothesis that phospholipids could drive competition between
protocells, we asked whether mixed fatty acid/phospholipid vesi-
cles grow upon mixing with pure fatty acid vesicles. To monitor
surface area change, we measured the Förster resonance energy
transfer (FRET) between donors and acceptor fluorophores
included at a fixed initial concentration in the bilayer. This assay
quantitatively measures surface area by relating the decrease (or
increase) in FRET to a change in fluorophore concentration
(2, 7). We first asked whether 100 nm oleate vesicles containing
10 mol % di-oleoyl-phosphatidic acid (DOPA) grow upon mixing
with 1 equivalent of pure oleate vesicles (Fig. 1A). After mixing,
an approximate 16% increase in the surface area of the phospho-
lipid-containing vesicles was observed (k ¼ 0.1 s−1). Mixing with
either buffer or vesicles of the same composition did not lead to
growth. We also observed the corresponding shrinkage of pure
oleate vesicles upon mixing with vesicles containing 10 mol %
DOPA (Fig. 1B), but not upon mixing with buffer or with addi-
tional oleate vesicles.
The emergence of a catalytically functional polymer from a
population of random sequences would have been a rare stochas-
tic event. Within a population of protocells, the first cell contain-
ing a phospholipid synthase catalyst would have been surrounded
by a vast excess of protocells that could not synthesize phospho-
lipids. We therefore considered the effect of the ratio of phospho-
lipid-containing vesicles to pure fatty acid vesicles on the magni-
tude of the observed growth. We found that the amount of growth
increased continuously as the ratio of fatty acid donor vesicles to
phospholipid-containing acceptor vesicles increased (Fig. 1C).
Indeed, the extent of growth appears to be limited only by the
eventual dilution of initial phospholipid content. As a result,
early phospholipid synthesizing cells would be expected to grow
Author contributions: I.B. and J.W.S. designed research; I.B. performed research; I.B. and
J.W.S. analyzed data; and I.B. and J.W.S. wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.
whom correspondenceshould be addressed.E-mail: email@example.com.
This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/
www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1100498108 PNAS Early Edition
1 of 6
continuously, at the expense of neighboring vesicles, at a rate con-
trolled by the rate at which they could synthesize phospholipid.
We next asked whether phospholipid-driven growth could fa-
cilitate vesicle division, as has been demonstrated for the growth
of large multilamellar vesicles following fatty acid micelle addi-
tion (4). We prepared large (approximately 4 μ) multilamellar
oleate vesicles containing 10 mol % DOPA and an encapsulated
soluble dye (Fig. 2A). Upon mixing with a large excess of unla-
belled oleate vesicles, rapid growth was observed (Fig. 2B).
Remarkably, growth proceeded by the same pathway as pre-
viously observed (4) following the rapid addition of excess fatty
acid micelles: the extrusion of a thin tubular tail from the vesicle,
followed by the transformation of the original spherical vesicle
into a long, narrow filamentous vesicle (Fig. 3D). The cause of
this shape change is the lag between surface area growth and
volume growth, which is osmotically limited by the slowly per-
meating buffer in the medium (SI Appendix, Fig. S1). When a
mild shear force was applied to these filamentous structures by
gentle agitation, efficient vesicle division was observed (Fig. 3C).
This pathway allows for spontaneous protocell division without
the need for preexisting cellular machinery but is inaccessible by
osmotically driven competition, which leads to the growth of
swollen and therefore spherical vesicles. We obtained similar
results in experiments using a more prebiotically plausible lipid
mixture of 2∶1 decanoic acid: decanol and 10 mol % of di-
decanoyl-phosphatidic acid (DDPA) (SI Appendix, Fig. S2). This
mixture of short saturated single-chain amphiphiles mimics the
major products of the abiotic Fischer–Tropsch–Type synthesis
(10) and lipids extracted from the Murchison meteorite (11).
Mechanism of Competitive Growth. Monomer desorption is the
rate-limiting step in the exchange of fatty acids between vesicles
(12). We therefore hypothesized that phospholipids drive com-
petitive growth by reducing the efflux of fatty acid, leaving the
membrane while keeping the influx of fatty acids unchanged. In
principle, two effects could decrease the flux of fatty acids des-
orbing from a membrane: first, a decreased fatty acid off-rate in
the presence of phospholipids and, second, a decrease in the net
efflux from the membrane due to the reduced fraction of the
membrane surface area occupied by fatty acids.
To ask whether phospholipids decrease fatty acid off-rates, we
measured oleate desorption rates from mixed bilayer membranes
using a stopped-flow fluorescence assay (13). We measured fatty
acid desorption rates by monitoring the drop in fluorescence
over time of a pH-sensitive dye encapsulated within phospholipid
reporter vesicles. The decrease in fluorescence is caused by the
adsorption of fatty acids into the reporter vesicle membrane,
followed by flip-flop across the bilayer in a protonated form,
and subsequent proton release on the interior face of the reporter
vesicle (SI Appendix, Fig. S3). We found that oleate desorption
was progressively slowed by increasing DOPA content in the
donor vesicles, so that desorption from a pure fatty acid bilayer
was threefold faster than desorption from an almost pure phos-
pholipid bilayer (Fig. 3A). This latter rate is consistent with pre-
viously measured (13) oleate desorption rates from phospholipid
bilayers. Assuming that adsorption is unaffected, reducing the
B) Competition between vesicles was monitored by a FRET-based real-time
surface area assay. Growth of FRET-labeled 90∶10 oleate∶DOPA vesicles
(A) and shrinkage of FRET-dye labeled oleate vesicles (B) when mixed 1∶1
with buffer (black), unlabeled oleate vesicles (green), or unlabeled 90∶10
oleate∶DOPA vesicles (blue). (C and D) The dependence of vesicle growth
or shrinkage on vesicle stoichiometry. Final growth after equilibrium of
FRET-labeled 90∶10 oleate∶DOPA vesicles (C) and shrinkage of FRET-labeled
oleate vesicles (D) when mixed with varying amounts of unlabeled oleate (▪)
or unlabeled 90∶10 oleate∶DOPA (▴) vesicles. Error bars indicate SEM (N ¼ 3).
Phospholipids drive competition between fatty acid vesicles. (A and
with an encapsulated soluble dye, are initially spherical. (B) Upon mixing with a 100-fold excess of unlabeled oleate vesicles, the mixed vesicles rapidly grow
into long, filamentous vesicles. (C) The fragile filamentous vesicles then readily divide into small daughter vesicles upon the application of gentle shear forces
(see Methods). (Scale bar: 30 μm.) (D) Time course showing the shape transformation of a labeled 90∶10 oleate∶DOPA vesicle upon addition of unlabeled oleate
vesicles. Time in seconds. (Scale bar: 5 μm.)
Phospholipid-driven growth leads to a filamentous shape transition and vesicle division. (A) Large, multilamellar 90∶10 oleate∶DOPA vesicles, labeled
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www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1100498108 Budin and Szostak
off-rate of fatty acids would then drive both growth of the phos-
pholipid-containing vesicles and shrinkage of the pure fatty acid
vesicles (SI Appendix). The effect of phospholipid on the oleate
desorption rate is sufficient to explain the magnitude of growth
that we observed in competition experiments: 10 mol % DOPA
inhibited oleate desorption by 22%, corresponding to an ex-
pected surface area change of 14% at equilibrium (experimental,
16%) in 1∶1 competition experiments (e.g., Fig. 1A). The free
energy values for oleate dissociation derived from these rates
were linearly dependent on phospholipid content (SI Appendix,
Fig. S4), indicating that a noncooperative phospholipid-fatty-acid
interaction was responsible for the observed effects.
To characterize the structural basis for the phospholipid-driven
decrease in desorption rate, we measured the effectiveness of a
variety of phospholipids. The oleate desorption rate was mildly
dependent on phospholipid head group structure (SI Appendix,
Fig. S5A), consistent with the potential of the head group to
hydrogen bond with fatty acids in the bilayer (14, 15). We ob-
served a stronger effect by varying the acyl chain composition
of the phospholipid; saturated acyl chains inhibited desorption
more than phospholipids with unsaturated or branched chains
(SI Appendix, Fig. S5B). Saturated acyl chains, lacking cis double
bonds, permit increased interacyl chain van der Waals interac-
tions and thus form more ordered membranes (16). This effect
led us to hypothesize that diacyl lipids slow fatty acid desorption
by increasing the acyl chain order in the bilayer. Because more
closely packed acyl chains are expected to have a higher affinity
for each other, an increase in bilayer order would slow monomer
desorption, as has been observed for the desorption of cholester-
ol (17) and phospholipids (18). To test this hypothesis, we mea-
sured the steady-state fluorescence anisotropy of the fluorophore
1,6-diphenyl-1,3,5-hexatriene (DPH), a reporter of the microvisc-
osity of the bilayer interior (19). As expected, oleate membranes
exhibited significantly lower anisotropy than DOPA membranes,
indicating that monoacyl membranes are less ordered and more
fluid than their corresponding diacyl membranes (Fig. 3B). The
anisotropy of mixed membranes was linearly dependent on the
diacyl lipid content, an observation consistent with the desorption
rates in mixed membranes. The anisotropy of mixed membranes
containing acyl chain analogues (SI Appendix, Fig. S6) also cor-
related with the rate of oleate desorption in these mixtures (SI
Appendix, Fig. S5B). To confirm that lower fluidity can indepen-
dently drive growth, we measured the change in surface area of
oleate vesicles containing 10 mol % of di-stearoyl-phosphocho-
line (DSPC), a saturated chain phospholipid, after mixing with
oleate vesicles containing equal amounts of unsaturated PCs
(Fig. 3C, black bars). The DSPC-containing vesicles grew at the
expense of vesicles containing unsaturated PCs, with the magni-
tude of growth in agreement with the ratio of their fluidity mea-
surements via DPH anisotropy (Fig. 3C, gray bars). Because both
saturated and unsaturated PCs are essentially insoluble in water,
the growth of the membranes containing DSPC cannot be due
to a dilution effect, but must instead reflect the increased order
that the phospholipids introduce to the fatty acid bilayer.
In addition to the desorption effect described above, competi-
tion could also be driven by the entropically favored dilution of
the insoluble phospholipid fraction in the fatty acid membrane.
Mechanistically, this mode of growth occurs because only the
fraction of the vesicle surface area composed of fatty acids can
contribute to monomer efflux, whereas the entire surface area
permits fatty acid influx, leading to a net influx (growth) in the
presence of pure fatty acid vesicles. To test this mechanism
independently of off-rate effects, we screened for lipids with low
solubility that do not alter the fluidity of oleate membranes.
Nervonic acid (NA), a 24 carbon unsaturated fatty acid, is stable
in oleate vesicles as a minor fraction without affecting bilayer
fluidity (SI Appendix, Fig. S7) but has a longer residence time
than oleate due to its longer chain length. When oleate vesicles
containing 10 mol % NA were mixed with pure oleate vesicle,
we observed an initial period of growth, as in the case of the
phospholipid-containing vesicles. However, this growth phase
was followed by a slow loss of the added surface area as the NA
equilibrated between the two vesicle populations. Because the
off-rate of a lipid from a bilayer is dependent on the number of
carbon atoms in its acyl chain(s), a very long chain monoacyl
lipid that remains in the bilayer indefinitely would be sufficient
to drive growth. However, there is no prebiotic route to such
species, whereas diacyl lipid synthesis is a simple chemical means
of producing insoluble lipids via the linkage of two, short acyl
chains (20, 21).
We have identified two distinct mechanisms by which phos-
pholipids can drive competitive growth at the expense of pure
fatty acid vesicles. Because both the rate of fatty acid desorption
(Fig. 3A) and the surface fraction of insoluble phospholipid scale
throughout the binary mixture range (0–100 mol %), competition
for fatty acids and related molecules should be driven by any
difference in phospholipid content between vesicles. Consistent
with this prediction, we observed growth of oleate vesicles con-
taining 75 mol % DOPA upon mixing with vesicles containing
25 mol % DOPA (SI Appendix, Fig. S8). Early cells that were cap-
able of synthesizing more phospholipid could therefore have
grown at the expense of other cells that synthesized less phospho-
lipid, which would have led to an evolutionary arms race (22)
driving increasing diacyl lipid content in early cell membranes.
Effect of Increasing Phospholipid Content on Membrane Permeability.
What would have been the consequences of such an inexorable
transition from monoacyl to diacyl lipid membranes? If high
membrane permeability was necessary for early heterotrophic
cells to take in chemical building blocks from the environment,
of oleate in mixed oleate/DOPA vesicles as a function of DOPA content.
Increasing phospholipid content slows oleate desorption, leading to growth
of phospholipid-enriched vesicles. (B) The steady-state anisotropy of DPH
in oleate/DOPA vesicles as a function of DOPA content. Bilayer packing
order increases linearly with increasing fraction of the diacyl lipid. Dashed
line indicates linear regression fit, R2¼ 0.98. (C) The extent of growth of
FRET labeled 90∶10 oleate∶DSPC vesicles when mixed 1∶1 with the given
90∶10 vesicle composition (black bars, left axis) correlates with the ratio of
the membrane fluidity between oleate/DSPC bilayers and those of the given
composition as measured by DPH anisotropy (gray bars, right axis). DOPC,
di-oleoyl-phosphocholine (C18∶1); SOPC, 1-stearoyl-2-oleoyl-phosphocholine
(C18∶0∕C18∶1). (D) Growth of FRET-labeled 90∶10 oleate∶NA vesicles when
mixed 1∶1 with unlabeled oleate vesicles. Growth proceeds in the first
60 s, followed by a slow relaxation due to the equilibration of the slowly
exchanging NA fraction. Error bars indicate SEM (N ¼ 3).
Mechanisms of phospholipid-driven growth. (A) The desorption rate
Budin and SzostakPNAS Early Edition
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changes in lipid composition that affect membrane permeability
would have imposed new selective pressures. Previous work (3)
has shown that the permeability of membranes composed of
short-chain (C10–14) fatty acids is significantly higher than that
of long-chain (C16–C18) phospholipids. However, it is unclear if
this effect is because of an intrinsic physical difference between
single-chain and diacyl lipid bilayers or because of the reduced
bilayer thickness of short-chain lipids (23).
Here we considered the dependence of solute permeation on
phospholipid content in a homogeneous C10 membrane system,
as acyl chains of this length are accessible by prebiotic chemistry
(10). The permeation of the sugar ribose to decanoic-acid-based
membranes (4∶1∶1 decanoic acid:decanol:glycerol monode-
canoate, DA∶DOH∶GMD) was strongly inhibited by increasing
proportions of DDPA as measured by a real-time vesicle swelling
assay (24) (Fig. 4A). Similarly, the permeation of 5′-imidazole-
activated dAMP (ImpdA), a model prebiotic building block for
template copying (25), was sixfold slower in DDPA membranes
compared to monoacyl membranes (Fig. 4B). The increased
permeability of single-chain membranes is explained by their in-
trinsically higher fluidity (lower order) compared to diacyl lipid
membranes (Fig. 3B), because permeability is correlated with
bilayer fluidity (26). Because this increased order also inhibits
fatty acid desorption, enhanced competition proficiency is intrin-
sically coupled to a reduction in membrane permeability.
The experiments presented here demonstrate that the synthesis
of diacyl phospholipids would have been highly beneficial for
early protocells featuring membranes composed of fatty acids and
their derivatives. The chemical pathway from fatty acids to the
simplest phospholipid, phosphatidic acid, occurs via successive
acyl- and phosphotransfer reactions. Although the intermediates
in this pathway, glycerol monoesters and lysophospholipids,
stabilize fatty acid bilayers to divalent cations (15) and varying
pH (27), they exchange rapidly between bilayers (28) and thus
would not stay localized to a single cell. Thus, there is no selective
advantage for a genomically encoded catalyst that would enable
internal synthesis of these intermediates, even though an envir-
onmental source of such lipids would be beneficial. In contrast,
diacyl lipids, such as phospholipids, are firmly anchored to the
membrane (t1∕2of hours to days; refs. 28 and 29) because of
their decreased solubility. Therefore, the synthesis of phosphati-
dic acid by the acylation of a lysophospholipid with an activated
fatty acid is the first step in this pathway for which a genomically
encoded catalyst would confer a selective advantage. An acyl-
transferase ribozyme that catalyzes this reaction, analogous to
the protein acyltransferases ubiquitous in phospholipid synthesis,
would therefore be sufficient to drive protocell growth and
could have been selected for during early cellular evolution. Once
such acyltransferases had evolved, there would have been a
selective advantage for the synthesis of phospholipid precursors,
because they would remain associated with their host cell via
incorporation into diacyl lipids.
We have argued that phospholipid-driven competition could
have led early cells into an evolutionary arms race leading to
steadily increasing diacyl lipid content in their membranes. We
have also shown that such a transition in membrane composition
would have come at the expense of membrane permeability. Cells
adopting increasingly phospholipid membranes would have
therefore been effectively sealing themselves off from previously
available nutrients in their environment. What selective pressures
would such a predicament impose on early, heterotophic cells?
Onepossibility isthatmembranetransporters, ahallmarkofmod-
ern cells, would have emerged as a means for overcoming low
membrane permeability. Although protein channels and pumps
are complex molecular assemblies, early transporters could have
formed from short peptides (30) or nucleic acid assemblies (31,
32), perhaps in complexes with cationic lipids. Additionally, cells
could have evolved the ability to synthesize their own building
blocks from simpler, more permeable substrates (metabolism)
(Fig. 5). Early catalysts, such as the phospho- and acyltransferases
proposed here for phospholipid synthesis, could have been
adapted for metabolic tasks such as sugar catabolism and peptide
synthesis (33), respectively. The emergence of phospholipid
membranes would also have allowed early cells to utilize ion gra-
dients (30), which rapidly decay in fatty acid membranes (34),
and to explore new environmental niches characterized by lower
monoacyl lipid concentrations. Hence, early changes in cell
membrane composition and permeability, driven by the simple
physical phenomena demonstrated here, could have been an
important driver of the evolution of metabolism and membrane
Materials. Phospholipids and diacyl glycerol were obtained from Avanti Polar
Lipids. Single-chain lipids (fatty acids, fatty alcohols, and glycerol monoesters)
membranes. (A) Permeability of C10 membranes (4∶1∶1 DA∶DOH∶GMD)
to ribose as a function of DDPA content as measured by a stopped-flow
relaxation assay. (B) Leakage of encapsulated ImpdA from C10 vesicles as
measured by scintillation counting of dialysis buffer aliquots. Membrane
compositions: □, 4∶1∶1 DA∶DOH∶GMD; ▴, 4∶1∶1 DA∶DOH∶GMD with
25 mol % DDPA; and *, DDPA.
Phospholipids inhibit solute permeation through fatty-acid-based
branes (Right) is driven by the selective growth advantage provided by increasing phospholipid content in the membrane. In turn, this transition in membrane
composition imposes a selective pressure for the emergence of internalized metabolism to counter the reduced permeability of diacyl lipid membranes.
Schematic for membrane-driven cellular evolution. The gradual transition from highly permeable primitive membranes (Left) to phospholipid mem-
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www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1100498108 Budin and Szostak
were obtained from Nu-chek Prep. Rhodamine DHPE (Rhodamine B 1,2-di-
hexadecanoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphoethanolamine) and NBD-PE [N-(7-nitro-
nolamine] were obtained from Invitrogen.3H-ImpdA was prepared by acti-
vation of 2,8-3H dAMP (Moravek Biochemicals) with carbonyldiimidazole
(CDI) (35). Briefly, dAMP was desalted on a spin-column (Dowex, Dow
Chemicals), dried, and reacted with 5 equivalents of CDI in 75∶25 DMSO∶
dimethylformamide containing 3 equivalents of triethylamine. The imidazo-
lide was purified by reverse-phase HPLC on a C18 column (Alltech)
equilibrated with 20 mM triethylammonium bicarbonate pH 7.8, 2% aceto-
nitrile and eluted with a 2–9% gradient of acetonitrile. All other reagents
were obtained from Sigma-Aldrich.
Vesicle Preparation. Phospholipid vesicles were prepared by thin-film hydra-
tion from chloroform stock solutions. Fatty acid and mixed vesicles were
prepared by dispersing the neat oil in buffer. For mixed vesicles, the phospho-
lipid stock solution was first added to the oil and solvent evaporated. All
vesicle solutions were incubated for >12 h under gentle agitation. Unilamel-
lar vesicles were prepared by extrusion 11 times through 100-nm pore-size
polycarbonate membranes in an Avanti miniextruder. All extruded vesicles
were used between 4 and 24 h after extrusion. Solutes to be encapsulated
were included in the hydration/dispersion buffer, and extrusion was pre-
ceded by 5–10 cycles of freeze–thaw. Unencapsulated solutes were removed
by gel filtration (Sepharose-4B) or dialysis. For microscopy experiments, large,
monodisperse vesicles were prepared by extrusion through 5-μm pore-size
membranes followed by repeated dialysis against 3-μm pore-size membranes
as previously described (4). Alternatively, for experiments using DDPA or high
DOPA content, dialysis was substituted with repeated pipetting against 3-μm
pore-size membranes, which act as large-pore sieves. For single-chain lipid
mixtures, all gel filtration and dialysis buffers contained the appropriate lipid
mixture at concentrations above the critical aggregation concentration;
100 μM for oleate mixtures and 30 mM for decanoic acid mixtures. Unless
otherwise noted, vesicles were prepared in 0.2 M Naþ-bicine pH 8.5.
Microscopy. Vesicles to be used for imaging were prepared with 2 mM encap-
sulated (8-hydroxypyrene-1,3,6-trisulfonic acid (HPTS), unless otherwise
noted.For competition experiments, labeled vesicles were quickly mixed with
extruded, unlabeled vesicles and pipetted into a disposable hemocytometer
(Incyto) or homemade flow cell for imaging. For vesicle division, shear force
was applied either by blowing compressed air onto a drop of vesicle-contain-
ing solution or by gently pressing on the top of the imaging chamber. Images
were taken on an inverted epifluoresence microscope (Nikon TE2000S) with
extra-long working distance objective lenses. The illumination source was a
metal halide lamp equipped with appropriate optical filters for fluorescence
imaging and neutral density filters to minimize photobleaching. Images
were recorded on a CCD camera (Hamamatsu) and processed using Phylum
software. Experiments were performed at 23 °C.
Competition Measurements. The surface area of 100-nm vesicles was moni-
tored by FRET as previously described (2, 7). Labeled vesicles were prepared
with a 1∶1 ratio of Rhodamine-DHPE and NBD-PE at 0.2 mol % (for oleate
vesicles) or 0.4 mol % (for oleate/DOPA vesicles). For kinetic experiments,
the ratio of acceptor to donor emission was recorded on a stopped-flow spec-
trofluorimeter (Applied Photophysics SX.18MV-R). For steady-state measure-
ments, the FRET signal was calculated as the ratio of donor emission before
and after the addition of 1% Triton X-100, measured on an in-line fluori-
meter (Varian). Measurements were converted to relative surface area using
standard curves of FRET signal vs. dye concentration. Total lipid concentra-
tions were kept below 3 mM to avoid scattering artifacts. All experiments
were performed in 0.2 M Naþ-bicine at pH 8.5, 1 mM EDTA at 23 °C.
Desorption Measurements. Fatty acid desorption rates were measured as
previously described (13). Unless otherwise noted, vesicles were prepared
with 0.25 mM (final concentration) of the fatty acid and were mixed with
reporter vesicles (1 mM 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-phosphocholine) encapsulating
0.5 mM HPTS in a stopped-flow spectrometer. The decline in the pH-sensitive
HPTS emission at 510 nm (λex460 nm) was fitted to a first-order exponential
decay. Traces were taken as the average from five independent runs. All ex-
periments were performed in 0.2 M Naþ-bicine pH 8.5, 1 mM EDTA at 23°C.
Anisotropy Measurements. DPH was added to 100-nm vesicles as a 1% vol∕vol
concentrated ethanol stock, followed by a >1 h incubation. Steady-state
anisotropy measurements were taken as described (19) on a Cary Eclipse
(Varian) spectrophotometer with a manual polarizer accessory. Anisotropy
was calculated as a unitless ratio defined as R ¼ ðI¼− I⊥Þ∕ðI¼þ 2I⊥Þ, where
I is the emission intensity at 430 nm (λex360 nm) parallel (I¼) or perpendicular
(I⊥) to the direction of polarization of the excitation source. Measurements
were taken at 23 °C.
Permeability Measurements. Ribose permeability was measured by the shrink–
swell assay (24). Vesicles containing 10-mM encapsulated calcein were mixed
with buffer containing 0.7 M ribose in a stopped-flow spectrofluorimeter.
Fluorescence intensity (λem 540–560 nm, λex 470 nm) initially declined
rapidly due to water efflux, then slowly relaxed back to the initial value due
to ribose (and water) influx. Solute permeability was calculated from the
relaxation rate. Bicine permeability was measured similarly on an in-line
fluorimeter. Nucleotide permeability was measured by monitoring leakage
of 2,8-3H-ImpdA from 100-nm vesicles. After encapsulation, vesicles were
loaded into 65-kDa molecular-weight cutoff dialysis tubes and leakage
monitored by scintillation counting of dialysis buffer aliquots (36). Except for
bicine permeability, all experiments were performed in 0.1 M piperazine-1,4-
bis(2-hydroxy-propanesulfonic acid) pH 8.2 at 30 °C. This buffer was chosen
for its low permeability, even at elevated temperatures, which allowed us to
specifically monitor ribose influx during shrink–swell experiments.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank R. Bruckner, A. Ricardo, S. Tobé, T. Zhu, and
C. Blain for discussions and S. Tobé for assistance with nucleotide perme-
ability experiments. This work was supported by a grant from the NASA
Exobiology Program (EXB02-0031-0018 to J.W.S.). J.W.S. is an Investigator
of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
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