Phospholipid packing has been suggested as a relevant variable in the control of membrane fusion events. To test this possibility in a model system, a comparison was made of the fusability of erythrocytes with a normal asymmetric transbilayer distribution of plasma membrane phospholipids (tightly packed exterior lipids) and erythrocytes with a symmetric transbilayer distribution of phospholipids (more loosely packed exterior lipids), using polyethylene glycol as fusogen. Not only were lipid-symmetric cells more readily fused, but fusions of mixtures of lipid-symmetric and lipid-asymmetric cells indicated that both fusing partners must have a symmetric distribution for fusion to be enhanced. Lipid-symmetric cells may fuse more readily because loose packing of the exterior lipids enhances hydrophobic interactions between cells. Alternatively, enhanced membrane fluidity may facilitate intramembranous particle clustering, previously implicated as a potentiator of fusion. Finally, exposure of phosphatidylserine on the surface of lipid-symmetric erythrocytes may be responsible for their enhanced fusion.

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