Viscous control of cellular respiration by membrane lipid composition

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Science  07 Dec 2018:
Vol. 362, Issue 6419, pp. 1186-1189
DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7925

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How membrane viscosity affects respiration

In bacteria, energy production by the electron transport chain occurs at cell membranes and can be influenced by the lipid composition of the membrane. Budin et al. used genetic engineering to influence the concentration of unsaturated branched-chain fatty acids and thus control membrane viscosity (see the Perspective by Schon). Experimental measurements and mathematical modeling indicated that rates of respiratory metabolism and rates of cell growth were dependent on membrane viscosity and its effects on diffusion. Experiments on yeast mitochondria also showed similar effects. Maintaining efficient respiration may thus place evolutionary constraints on cellular lipid composition.

Science, this issue p. 1186; see also p. 1114


Lipid composition determines the physical properties of biological membranes and can vary substantially between and within organisms. We describe a specific role for the viscosity of energy-transducing membranes in cellular respiration. Engineering of fatty acid biosynthesis in Escherichia coli allowed us to titrate inner membrane viscosity across a 10-fold range by controlling the abundance of unsaturated or branched lipids. These fluidizing lipids tightly controlled respiratory metabolism, an effect that can be explained with a quantitative model of the electron transport chain (ETC) that features diffusion-coupled reactions between enzymes and electron carriers (quinones). Lipid unsaturation also modulated mitochondrial respiration in engineered budding yeast strains. Thus, diffusion in the ETC may serve as an evolutionary constraint for lipid composition in respiratory membranes.

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