Membrane biochemists are becoming increasingly aware of the role of lipid-protein interactions in diverse cellular functions. This review describes how conformational changes in membrane proteins, involving folding, stability, and membrane shape transitions, potentially involve elastic remodeling of the lipid bilayer. Evidence suggests that membrane lipids affect proteins through interactions of a relatively long-range nature, extending beyond a single annulus of next-neighbor boundary lipids. It is assumed the distance scale of the forces is large compared to the molecular range of action. Application of the theory of elasticity to flexible soft surfaces derives from classical physics and explains the polymorphism of both detergents and membrane phospholipids. A flexible surface model (FSM) describes the balance of curvature and hydrophobic forces in lipid-protein interactions. Chemically nonspecific properties of the lipid bilayer modulate the conformational energetics of membrane proteins. The new biomembrane model challenges the standard model (the fluid mosaic model) found in biochemistry texts. The idea of a curvature force field based on data first introduced for rhodopsin gives a bridge between theory and experiment. Influences of bilayer thickness, nonlamellar-forming lipids, detergents, and osmotic stress are all explained by the FSM. An increased awareness of curvature forces suggests that research will accelerate as structural biology becomes more closely entwined with the physical chemistry of lipids in explaining membrane structure and function.
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