Protein folding has been at the forefront of molecular cell biology research for several years. However, integral membrane proteins have eluded detailed molecular level study until recently. One reason is the often apparently insurmountable problem of mimicking the natural membrane bilayer with lipid or detergent mixtures. There is nevertheless a large body of information on lipid properties and in particular on phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylethanolamine lipids, which are common to many biological membranes. We have exploited this knowledge to design efficient in vitro, lipid-bilayer folding systems for membrane proteins. Bacteriorhodopsin has been used as a model system for our initial studies: we have shown that a rate-limiting apoprotein folding step and the overall folding efficiency seem to be controlled by particular properties of the lipid bilayer. The properties of interest are the stored curvature elastic energy within the bilayer and the lateral pressure that the lipid chains exert on their neighbouring folding protein. These are generic properties of the bilayer that can be achieved with simple mixtures of many types of biological lipid and seem to be important in vivo.

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