Comparative Study of the Condensing Effects of Ergosterol and Cholesterol
Cholesterol, due to its condensing effect, is considered an important regulator of membrane thickness. Other sterols, due to their structural similarities to cholesterol, are often assumed to have a universal effect on membrane properties similar to the condensing effect of cholesterol, albeit possibly to different degrees. We used x-ray diffraction to investigate this assumption. By the combination of lamellar diffraction and grazing-angle scattering, we measured the membrane thickness and the tilt-angle distribution of the lipid’s hydrocarbon chains. This method is sensitive to phase separation, which is important for examining the miscibility of sterols and phospholipids. Mixtures of ergosterol or cholesterol with dimyristoylphosphatidylcholine, palmitoyloleoylphosphatidylcholine, and dioleoylphosphatidylcholine were systematically studied. We found that mixing ergosterol with phospholipids into a single phase became increasingly difficult with higher sterol concentrations and also with higher concentrations of unsaturated lipid chains. The only condensing effect of ergosterol was found in dimyristoylphosphatidylcholine, although the effect was less than one-third of the effect of cholesterol. Unlike cholesterol, ergosterol could not maintain a fixed electron density profile of the surrounding lipids independent of hydration. In dioleoylphosphatidylcholine and palmitoyloleoylphosphatidylcholine, ergosterol made the membranes thinner, opposite to the effect of cholesterol. In all cases, the tilt-angle variation of the chain diffraction was consistent with the membrane thickness changes measured by lamellar diffraction, i.e., a thickening was always associated with a reduction of chain tilt angles. Our findings do not support the notion that different sterols have a universal behavior that differs only in degree.