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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Membrane microdomains emergence through non-homogeneous diffusion

Hédi A Soula13*, Antoine Coulon4 and Guillaume Beslon23

Author affiliations

1 Université de Lyon Inserm UMR1060, F-69621, Villeurbanne Cédex, France

2 Université de Lyon, CNRS INSA-Lyon, LIRIS, UMR5205, F-69621, France

3 EPI BEAGLE, INRIA, F-69603, France

4 Laboratory of Biological Modeling, NIDDK, NIH, Bethesda, MD, 20892, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Biophysics 2012, 5:6  doi:10.1186/2046-1682-5-6

Published: 30 April 2012



In the classical view, cell membrane proteins undergo isotropic random motion, that is a 2D Brownian diffusion that should result in an homogeneous distribution of concentration. It is, however, far from the reality: Membrane proteins can assemble into so-called microdomains (sometimes called lipid rafts) which also display a specific lipid composition. We propose a simple mechanism that is able to explain the colocalization of protein and lipid rafts.


Using very simple mathematical models and particle simulations, we show that a variation of membrane viscosity directly leads to variation of the local concentration of diffusive particles. Since specific lipid phases in the membrane can account for diffusion variation, we show that, in such a situation, the freely diffusing proteins (or any other component) still undergo a Brownian motion but concentrate in areas of lower diffusion. The amount of this so-called overconcentration at equilibrium issimply related to the ratio of diffusion coefficients between zones of high and low diffusion. Expanding the model to include particle interaction, we show that inhomogeneous diffusion can impact particles clusterization as well. The clusters of particles were more numerous and appear for a lower value of interaction strength in the zones of low diffusion compared to zones of high diffusion.


Provided we assume stable viscosity heterogeneity in the membrane, our model propose a simple mechanism to explain particle concentration heterogeneity. It has also a non-trivial impact on density of particles when interaction is added. This could potentially have an impact on membrane chemical reactions and oligomerization.

Membrane domains; Non-homogeneous diffusion; Individual-based model