Lipid scramblases play critical roles in diverse biological events, from cellular apoptosis to coagulation of the blood. The transmembrane protein 16 (TMEM16) family of membrane proteins consists of both ion channels and scramblases, but little is known about how these proteins conduct ions or lipids across the bilayer. Here, we present computational results on a fungal TMEM16 family member that provide insight into how scramblases deform the membrane to facilitate lipid permeation. We identified specific residues on the protein surface that are responsible for scrambling, and homologous positions in the mammalian TMEM16 family members may be promising pharmaceutical targets.
The transmembrane protein 16 (TMEM16) family of membrane proteins includes both lipid scramblases and ion channels involved in olfaction, nociception, and blood coagulation. The crystal structure of the fungal Nectria haematococca TMEM16 (nhTMEM16) scramblase suggested a putative mechanism of lipid transport, whereby polar and charged lipid headgroups move through the low-dielectric environment of the membrane by traversing a hydrophilic groove on the membrane-spanning surface of the protein. Here, we use computational methods to explore the membrane–protein interactions involved in lipid scrambling. Fast, continuum membrane-bending calculations reveal a global pattern of charged and hydrophobic surface residues that bends the membrane in a large-amplitude sinusoidal wave, resulting in bilayer thinning across the hydrophilic groove. Atomic simulations uncover two lipid headgroup-interaction sites flanking the groove. The cytoplasmic site nucleates headgroup–dipole stacking interactions that form a chain of lipid molecules that penetrate into the groove. In two instances, a cytoplasmic lipid interdigitates into this chain, crosses the bilayer, and enters the extracellular leaflet, and the reverse process happens twice as well. Continuum membrane-bending analysis carried out on homology models of mammalian homologs shows that these family members also bend the membrane—even those that lack scramblase activity. Sequence alignments show that the lipid-interaction sites are conserved in many family members but less so in those with reduced scrambling ability. Our analysis provides insight into how large-scale membrane bending and protein chemistry facilitate lipid permeation in the TMEM16 family, and we hypothesize that membrane interactions also affect ion permeation.