Interactions of cholesterol with lipid bilayers: The preferred configuration and fluctuations

Amit Kessel, Nir Ben-Tal*, Sylvio May

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The free energy difference associated with the transfer of a single cholesterol molecule from the aqueous phase into a lipid bilayer depends on its final location, namely on its insertion depth and orientation within the bilayer. We calculated desolvation and lipid bilayer perturbation contributions to the water-to-membrane transfer free energy, thus allowing us to determine the most favorable location of cholesterol in the membrane and the extent of fluctuations around it. The electrostatic and nonpolar contributions to the solvation free energy were calculated using continuum solvent models. Lipid layer perturbations, resulting from both conformational restrictions of the lipid chains in the vicinity of the (rigid) cholesterol backbone and from cholesterol-induced elastic deformations, were calculated using a simple director model and elasticity theory, respectively. As expected from the amphipathic nature of cholesterol and in agreement with the available experimental data, our results show that at the energetically favorable state, cholesterol's hydrophobic core is buried within the hydrocarbon region of the bilayer. At this state, cholesterol spans approximately one leaflet of the membrane, with its OH group protruding into the polar (headgroup) region of the bilayer, thus avoiding an electrostatic desolvation penalty. We found that the transfer of cholesterol into a membrane is mainly driven by the favorable nonpolar contributions to the solvation free energy, whereas only a small opposing contribution is caused by conformational restrictions of the lipid chains. Our calculations also predict a strong tendency of the lipid layer to elastically respond to (thermally excited) vertical fluctuations of cholesterol so as to fully match the hydrophobic height of the solute. However, orientational fluctuations of cholesterol were found to be accompanied by both an elastic adjustment of the surrounding lipids and by a partial exposure of the hydrophobic cholesterol backbone to the polar (headgroup) environment. Our calculations of the molecular order parameter, which reflects the extent of orientational fluctuations of cholesterol in the membrane, are in good agreement with available experimental data.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)643-658
Number of pages16
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2001


Dive into the research topics of 'Interactions of cholesterol with lipid bilayers: The preferred configuration and fluctuations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this