Energetics and self-assembly of amphipathic peptide pores in lipid membranes

Assaf Zemel, Deborah R. Fattal, Avinoam Ben-Shaul*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


We present a theoretical study of the energetics, equilibrium size, and size distribution of membrane pores composed of electrically charged amphipathic peptides. The peptides are modeled as cylinders (mimicking α-helices) carrying different amounts of charge, with the charge being uniformly distributed over a hydrophilic face, defined by the angle subtended by polar amino acid residues. The free energy of a pore of a given radius, R, and a given number of peptides, s, is expressed as a sum of the peptides' electrostatic charging energy (calculated using Poisson-Boltzmann theory), and the lipid-perturbation energy associated with the formation of a membrane rim (which we model as being semitoroidal) in the gap between neighboring peptides. A simple phenomenological model is used to calculate the membrane perturbation energy. The balance between the opposing forces (namely, the radial free energy derivatives) associated with the electrostatic free energy that favors large R, and the membrane perturbation term that favors small R, dictates the equilibrium properties of the pore. Systematic calculations are reported for circular pores composed of various numbers of peptides, carrying different amounts of charge (1-6 elementary, positive charges) and characterized by different polar angles. We find that the optimal R's, for all (except, possibly, very weakly) charged peptides conform to the "toroidal" pore model, whereby a membrane rim larger than ∼1 nm intervenes between neighboring peptides. Only weakly charged peptides are likely to form "barrel-stave" pores where the peptides essentially touch one another. Treating pore formation as a two-dimensional self-assembly phenomenon, a simple statistical thermodynamic model is formulated and used to calculate pore size distributions. We find that the average pore size and size polydispersity increase with peptide charge and with the amphipathic polar angle. We also argue that the transition of peptides from the adsorbed to the inserted (membrane pore) state is cooperative and thus occurs rather abruptly upon a change in ambient conditions.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)2242-2255
Number of pages14
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2003

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The financial support of the Israel Science Foundation and the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation is gratefully acknowledged. The Fritz Haber Center is supported by the Minerva Foundation, Munich, Germany.


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