A cost–benefit analysis of the physical mechanisms of membrane curvature


Many cellular membrane-bound structures exhibit distinct curvature that is driven by the physical properties of their lipid and protein constituents. Here we review how cells manipulate and control this curvature in the context of dynamic events such as vesicle-mediated membrane traffic. Lipids and cargo proteins each contribute energy barriers that must be overcome during vesicle formation. In contrast, protein coats and their associated accessory proteins drive membrane bending using a variety of interdependent physical mechanisms. We survey the energy costs and drivers involved in membrane curvature, and draw a contrast between the stochastic contributions of molecular crowding and the deterministic assembly of protein coats. These basic principles also apply to other cellular examples of membrane bending events, including important disease-related problems such as viral egress.

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Figure 1: Cellular sites of membrane curvature.
Figure 2: Steric effects during membrane curvature.
Figure 3: Energetics of coated vesicle formation.


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J.C.S. acknowledges funding from the University of Texas Austin Cockrell School of Engineering and the Texas 4000 Cancer Seed Grant Program. F.M.B. and E.A.M. acknowledge support from the National Institute of General Medical Science of the National Institutes of Health under award numbers R01GM038093 (F.M.B.), R01GM078186 (E.A.M.) and R01GM085089 (E.A.M.). We thank M. C. S. Lee (Columbia University), E. Schmid (University of California, Berkeley), C. Hayden (Sandia National Laboratories) and E. Lafer (University of Texas Health Science Center) for thoughtful discussions and comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Miller.

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Stachowiak, J., Brodsky, F. & Miller, E. A cost–benefit analysis of the physical mechanisms of membrane curvature. Nat Cell Biol 15, 1019–1027 (2013) doi:10.1038/ncb2832

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