This study investigated the fusion of apposing floating bilayers of egg L-alpha-phosphatidylcholine (egg PC) or 1,2-dimyristoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine. Atomic force microscope measurements of fusion forces under different compression rates were acquired to reveal the energy landscape of the fusion process under varied lipid composition and temperature. Between compression rates of approximately 1000 and approximately 100,000 pN/s, applied forces in the range from approximately 100 to approximately 500 pN resulted in fusion of floating bilayers. Our atomic force microscope measurements indicated that one main energy barrier dominated the fusion process. The acquired dynamic force spectra were fit with a simple model based on the transition state theory with the assumption that the fusion activation potential is linear. A significant shift in the energy landscape was observed when bilayer fluidity and composition were modified, respectively, by temperature and different cholesterol concentrations (15% < or = chol < or = 25%). Such modifications resulted in a more than twofold increase in the width of the fusion energy barrier for egg PC and 1,2-dimyristoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine floating bilayers. The addition of 25% cholesterol to egg PC bilayers increased the activation energy by approximately 1.0 k(B)T compared with that of bilayers with egg PC alone. These results reveal that widening of the energy barrier and consequently reduction in its slope facilitated membrane fusion.
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