Calcium-Induced Lipid Nanocluster Structures: Sculpturing of the Plasma Membrane


The plasma membrane of the cell is a complex, tightly regulated, heterogeneous environment shaped by proteins, lipids, and small molecules. Ca2+ ions are important cellular messengers, spatially separated from anionic lipids. After cell injury, disease, or apoptotic events, anionic lipids are externalized to the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane and encounter Ca2+, resulting in dramatic changes in the plasma membrane structure and initiation of signaling cascades. Despite the high chemical and biological significance, the structures of lipid–Ca2+ nanoclusters are still not known. Previously, we demonstrated by solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy that upon binding to Ca2+, individual phosphatidylserine lipids populate two distinct yet-to-be-characterized structural environments. Here, we concurrently employ extensive all-atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations with our accelerated membrane mimetic and detailed NMR measurements to identify lipid–Ca2+ nanocluster conformations. We find that major structural characteristics of these nanoclusters, including interlipid pair distances and chemical shifts, agree with observable NMR parameters. Simulations reveal that lipid–ion nanoclusters are shaped by two characteristic, long-lived lipid structures induced by divalent Ca2+. Using ab initio quantum mechanical calculations of chemical shifts on MD-captured lipid–ion complexes, we show that computationally observed conformations are validated by experimental NMR data. Both NMR measurements of diluted specifically labeled lipids and MD simulations reveal that the basic structural unit that reshapes the membrane is a Ca2+-coordinated phosphatidylserine tetramer. Our combined computational and experimental approach presented here can be applied to other complex systems in which charged membrane-active molecular agents leave structural signatures on lipids.

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