A quantitative model for membrane fusion based on low-energy intermediates. Academic Article uri icon


  • The energetics of a fusion pathway is considered, starting from the contact site where two apposed membranes each locally protrude (as "nipples") toward each other. The equilibrium distance between the tips of the two nipples is determined by a balance of physical forces: repulsion caused by hydration and attraction generated by fusion proteins. The energy to create the initial stalk, caused by bending of cis monolayer leaflets, is much less when the stalk forms between nipples rather than parallel flat membranes. The stalk cannot, however, expand by bending deformations alone, because this would necessitate the creation of a hydrophobic void of prohibitively high energy. But small movements of the lipids out of the plane of their monolayers allow transformation of the stalk into a modified stalk. This intermediate, not previously considered, is a low-energy structure that can reconfigure into a fusion pore via an additional intermediate, the prepore. The lipids of this latter structure are oriented as in a fusion pore, but the bilayer is locally compressed. All membrane rearrangements occur in a discrete local region without creation of an extended hemifusion diaphragm. Importantly, all steps of the proposed pathway are energetically feasible.

publication date

  • June 19, 2001