Alcohol's effects on lipid bilayer properties
Alcohols are known modulators of lipid bilayer properties. Their biological effects have long been attributed to their bilayer-modifying effects, but alcohols can also alter protein function through direct protein interactions. This raises the question: Do alcohol's biological actions result predominantly from direct protein-alcohol interactions or from general changes in the membrane properties? The efficacy of alcohols of various chain lengths tends to exhibit a so-called cutoff effect (i.e., increasing potency with increased chain length, which that eventually levels off). The cutoff varies depending on the assay, and numerous mechanisms have been proposed such as: limited size of the alcohol-protein interaction site, limited alcohol solubility, and a chain-length-dependent lipid bilayer-alcohol interaction. To address these issues, we determined the bilayer-modifying potency of 27 aliphatic alcohols using a gramicidin-based fluorescence assay. All of the alcohols tested (with chain lengths of 1-16 carbons) alter the bilayer properties, as sensed by a bilayer-spanning channel. The bilayer-modifying potency of the short-chain alcohols scales linearly with their bilayer partitioning; the potency tapers off at higher chain lengths, and eventually changes sign for the longest-chain alcohols, demonstrating an alcohol cutoff effect in a system that has no alcohol-binding pocket.