Understanding the Functional Properties of Lipid Heterogeneity in Pulmonary Surfactant Monolayers at the Atomistic Level

Juho Liekkinen, Berta de Santos Moreno, Riku O. Paananen, Ilpo Vattulainen, Luca Monticelli, Jorge Bernardino de la Serna, Matti Javanainen

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Pulmonary surfactant is a complex mixture of lipids and proteins lining the interior of the alveoli, and constitutes the first barrier to both oxygen and pathogens as they progress toward blood circulation. Despite decades of study, the behavior of the pulmonary surfactant at the molecular scale is poorly understood, which hinders the development of effective surfactant replacement therapies, useful in the treatment of several lung-related diseases. In this work, we combined all-atom molecular dynamics simulations, Langmuir trough measurements, and AFM imaging to study synthetic four-component lipid monolayers designed to model protein-free pulmonary surfactant. We characterized the structural and dynamic properties of the monolayers with a special focus on lateral heterogeneity. Remarkably, simulations reproduce almost quantitatively the experimental data on pressure-area isotherms and the presence of lateral heterogeneities highlighted by AFM. Quite surprisingly, the pressure-area isotherms do not show a plateau region, despite the presence of liquid-condensed nanometer-sized domains at surface pressures larger than 20 mN/m. In the simulations, the liquid-condensed domains were small and transient, but they did not coalesce to yield a separate phase. They were only slightly enriched in DPPC and cholesterol, and their chemical composition remained very similar to the overall composition of the monolayer membrane. Instead, they differed from liquid-expanded regions in terms of membrane thickness (in agreement with AFM data), diffusion rates, as well as acyl chain packing and orientation. We hypothesize that such lateral heterogeneities are crucial for lung surfactant function, as they allow both efficient packing, to achieve low surface tension, and sufficient fluidity, critical for rapid adsorption to the air–liquid interface during the breathing cycle.

Original languageEnglish
Article number581016
Number of pages16
JournalFrontiers in cell and developmental biology
Publication statusPublished - 16 Nov 2020
Publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • atomic force microscopy
  • heterogeneity
  • lipid monolayer
  • membrane domain
  • molecular dynamics simulation
  • pressure-area isotherm
  • pulmonary surfactant

Publication forum classification

  • Publication forum level 1

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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