Journal for Biophysical Chemistry

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Open Access

Thermally induced phase separation in supported bilayers of glycosphingolipid and phospholipid mixtures

  • Alan W. Szmodis1,
  • Craig D. Blanchette1,
  • Marjorie L. Longo2,
  • Christine A. Orme3 and
  • Atul N. Parikh4

Received: 6 August 2010

Accepted: 8 November 2010


The authors have studied microstructure evolution during thermally induced phase separation in a class of binary supported lipid bilayers using a quantitative application of imaging ellipsometry. The bilayers consist of binary mixtures consisting of a higher melting glycosphingolipid, galactosylceramide (GalCer), which resides primarily in the outer leaflet, and a lower melting, unsaturated phospholipid, 1,2-dilauroyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine (DLPC). Three different bilayer compositions of GalCer/DLPC mixtures at 35:65, 20:80, and 10:90 molar ratios were cooled at controlled rates from their high-temperature homogeneous phase to temperatures corresponding to their phase coexistence regime and imaged in real time using imaging ellipsometry. During the thermotropic course of GalCer gelation, we find that two distinct types of morphological features modulate. First, the formation and growth of chain and fractal-like defects ascribed to the net change in molecular areas during the phase transition. The formation of these defects is consistent with the expected contraction in the molecular area during the liquid crystalline to gel-phase transition. Second, the nucleation and growth of irregularly shaped gel-phase domains, which exhibit either line-tension dominated compact shape or dendritic domains with extended interfaces. Quantifying domain morphology within the fractal framework reveals a close correspondence, and the quantization of the transition width confirms previous estimates of reduced phase transition cooperativity in supported bilayers. A comparison of domain properties indicates that thermal history, bilayer composition, and cooling rate all influence microstructure details including shapes, sizes, and distributions of domains and defects: At lower cooling rates and lower GalCer fractions compact domains form and at higher GalCer fractions (or at higher cooling rates) dendritic domains are evident. This transition of domain morphology from compact shapes to dendritic shapes at higher cooling rates and higher relative fractions of GalCer suggests kinetic control of shape equilibration in these phospho- and glycolipid mixtures.