The folding mechanisms of integral membrane proteins have largely eluded detailed study. This is owing to the inherent difficulties in folding these hydrophobic proteins in vitro, which, in turn, reflects the often apparently insurmountable problem of mimicking the natural membrane bilayer with lipid or detergent mixtures. There is, however, a large body of information on lipid properties and, in particular, on phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylethanolamine lipids, which are common to many biological membranes. We have exploited this knowledge to develop efficient in vitro lipid-bilayer folding systems for the membrane protein, bacteriorhodopsin. Furthermore, we have shown that a rate-limiting apoprotein folding step and the overall folding efficiency appear to be controlled by particular properties of the lipid bilayer. The properties of interest are the stored curvature elastic energy within the bilayer, and the lateral pressure that the lipid chains exert on the their neighbouring folding proteins. These are generic properties of the bilayer that can be achieved with simple mixtures of biological lipids, and are not specific to the lipids studied here. These bilayer properties also seem to be important in modulating the function of several membrane proteins, as well as the function of membranes in vivo. Thus, it seems likely that careful manipulations of lipid properties will shed light on the forces that drive membrane protein folding, and will aid the development of bilayer folding systems for other membrane proteins.
- © 2001 The Biochemical Society