A current paradigm for visual function centers on the metarhodopsin I (MI) to metarhodopsin II (MII) conformational transition as the trigger for an intracellular enzyme cascade leading to excitation of the retinal rod. We investigated the influences of the membrane lipid composition on this key triggering event in visual signal transduction using flash photolysis techniques. Bovine rhodopsin was combined with various phospholipids to form membrane recombinants in which the lipid acyl chain composition was held constant at that of egg phosphatidylcholine (PC), while the identity of the lipid headgroups was varied. The ratio of MII/MI produced in these recombinants by an actinic flash at 28°C was studied as a function of pH. The results were compared to the photochemical function observed for rhodopsin in native retinal rod outer segment (ROS) membranes, in total native ROS lipid recombinants, and in dimyristoylphosphatidylcholine (DMPC) recombinants. In membrane recombinants incorporating lipids derived from egg PC, as well as in the total ROS lipids control and the native ROS disk membranes, MI and MII were found to coexist in a pH-dependent, acid-base equilibrium on the millisecond time scale. The recombinants of rhodopsin with egg PC, either alone or in combination with egg PC-derived phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) or phosphatidylserine (PS), exhibited substantially reduced photochemical activity at pH 7.0. However, all recombinants comprising phospholipids with unsaturated acyl chains were capable of full native-like MII production at pH 5.0, confirming previous results [Gibson, N. J., & Brown, M. F. (1990) Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 169, 1028–1034]. It follows that energetic constraints on the MI and MII states imposed by egg PC-derived acyl chains can be offset by increased activity of H+ ions. The data reveal that the major effect of the membrane lipid composition is to alter the apparent pK for the MI–MII conformational equilibrium of rhodopsin [Gibson, N. J., & Brown, M. F. (1991) Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 176, 915–921]. Recombinants containing only phosphocholine headgroups exhibited the lowest apparent pK values, whereas the presence of either 50 mol % PE or 15 mol % PS increased the apparent pK. The inability to obtain full native-like function in recombinants having egg PC-derived chains and a native-like headgroup composition indicates a significant role of the polyunsaturated docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) chains (22:6ω3) of the native retinal rod membrane lipids. Temperature studies of the MI–MII transition enabled an investigation of lipid influences on the thermodynamic parameters of a membrane protein conformational change linked directly to function. The changes in thermodynamic state variables suggest that rhodopsin may be partially unfolded in the MII state, leading to exposure of recognition sites for the signal transducing G protein. Finally, the results are discussed in terms of properties of the membrane lipid bilayer, including the influences of bilayer electrostatics as well as bulk material properties associated with the protein/lipid and lipid/water interfaces. Relatively small changes due to lateral and/or curvature stresses involving the lipid/water interface are sufficient to explain the free energy shifts for the MI–MII transition among the recombinants. The combination of PE headgroups together with bulky DHA chains in the native retinal rod lipids promotes formation of nonlamellar phases; one possibility is that the curvature free energy of the membrane-lipid/water interface is involved. These findings indicate that the membrane lipid composition influences directly the photochemical activity of rhodopsin, thereby implicating properties of the membrane lipid bilayer in the molecular mechanism of the visual process.
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