Channel formation by the bacterial toxin aerolysin follows oligomerization of the protein to produce heptamers that are capable of inserting into lipid bilayers. How insertion occurs is not understood, not only for aerolysin but also for other proteins that can penetrate membranes. We have studied aerolysin channel formation by measuring dye leakage from large unilamellar egg phosphatidylcholine vesicles containing varying amounts of other lipids. The rate of leakage was enhanced in a dose-dependent manner by the presence of phosphatidylethanolamine, diacylglycerol, cholesterol, or hexadecane, all of which are known to favor a lamellar-to-inverted hexagonal (L-H) phase transition. Phosphatidylethanolamine molecular species with low L- H transition temperatures had the largest effects on aerolysin activity. In contrast, the presence in the egg phosphatidylcholine liposomes of lipids that are known to stabilize the lamellar phase, such as sphingomyelin and saturated phosphatidylcholines, reduced the rate of channel formation, as did the presence of lysophosphatidylcholine, which favors positive membrane curvature. When two different lipids that favor hexagonal phase were present with egg PC in the liposomes, their stimulatory effects were additive. Phosphatidylethanolamine and lysophosphatidylcholine canceled each other's effect on channel formation.
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