Sphingomyelinase activity causes transbilayer lipid translocation in model and cell membranes
Ceramide is known to induce structural rearrangements in membrane bilayers, including the formation of ceramide-rich and -poor domains and the efflux of aqueous solutes. This report describes a novel effect of ceramide, namely the induction of transbilayer lipid movements. This effect was demonstrated in both model (large unilamellar vesicles) and cell (erythrocyte ghost) membranes in which ceramide generation took place in situ through the action of an externally added sphingomyelinase. Two different novel assays were developed to detect transbilayer lipid movement. One of the assays required the preparation of vesicles containing a ganglioside only in the outer monolayer and entrapped neuraminidase. Sphingomyelinase activity induced ganglioside hydrolysis under conditions in which no neuraminidase was released from the vesicles. The second assay involved the preparation of liposomes or erythrocyte ghosts labeled with a fluorescent energy donor in their inner leaflets. Sphingomyelin hydrolysis was accompanied by fluorescence energy transfer to an impermeable acceptor in the outer aqueous medium. Ceramide-induced transbilayer lipid movement is explained in terms of another well known property of ceramide, namely the facilitation of lamellar to non-lamellar lipid-phase transitions. Thus, sphingomyelinase generates ceramide on one side of the membrane; ceramide then induces the transient formation of non-lamellar structural intermediates, which cause the loss of lipid asymmetry in the bilayer, i.e. the transbilayer movement of ceramide together with other lipids. As direct targets for ceramide tend to be intracellular, these observations may be relevant to the mechanism of transmembrane signaling by means of the sphingomyelin pathway.