What determines the thickness of a biological membrane

Norbert Kučerka, Mu Ping Nieh, Jeremy Pencer, Jonathan N. Sachs, John Katsaras

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

46 Scopus citations


Membrane thickness is thought to play a key role in protein function. Thus understanding the cell's ability to modulate the thickness of its membranes is essential in elucidating the structure/function relationship in biological membranes. We have investigated the influence of cholesterol on the structure of "thin" (diC14:1PC) and "thick" (diC22:1PC) phospholipid bilayers using oriented multibilayers and small angle neutron diffraction. Neutron contrast variation was used to determine the structure factors and the distribution of water across the bilayers. We found that in response to cholesterol, bilayer thickness changed in a similar fashion in both systems. The thickening of bilayers was rationalized in terms of cholesterol's ordering effect on the lipid's acyl chains, which dominates over the other option of rectifying the hydrophobic mismatch, surprisingly even in the case of diC22:1PC and cholesterol.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-125
Number of pages9
JournalGeneral Physiology and Biophysics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2009


  • Bilayer thickness
  • Cholesterol
  • Contrast variation
  • Neutron diffraction
  • Phospholipid bilayer


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