The interactions of (macro-)molecules with biological membranes underlies much of cell biology. This paper outlines many of the factors that must be taken into account in order to understand fully the nature of these interactions. These include some roles of the membrane potentials including features of the surface and dipole potentials. Several fluorescence detection technologies directed towards these are outlined that offer high-resolution experimental determination of the intermolecular interactions by measuring small changes of these potentials resulting from specific interactions of many kinds of molecular species. The possibilities for making single-cell spatial imaging measurements of such interactions is also described. Examples are used to indicate the feasibility of identifying and tracking localized interactions on the membrane surface in real-time. Some of this work points to the possibility that the membrane dipole potential spatially varies about the cell surface, particularly within membrane microdomains such as ‘rafts’. Such variation is suggested to underlie the altered behaviour of signalling systems within rafts and offer the means of an additional level of biological control.

Abbreviations used: ϕm, transmembrane potential difference; ϕs, membrane surface potential; ϕd, membrane dipole potential; FPE, fluorescein phosphatidylethanolamine; FHCVF, Flory-Huggins Corrected Volume-Fraction; GPCR, G-protein-coupled receptor; di-8-ANEPPS, 1-(3-sulphonatopropyl)-4-[β[2-(di-n-octylamino)-6-naphthyl] vinyl]pyridinium betaine; KC, 6-ketocholestanol.

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Author notes

Intermolecular Associations in 2D and 3D, a Biochemical Society Focused Meeting held at University of Nottingham, 19–20 June 2003