Phospholipids are the main components of biological membranes and dissolved in water these molecules self-assemble into closed structures, of which bilayers are the most relevant from a biological point of view. Lipid bilayers are often used, both in experimental and by theoretical investigations, as model systems to understand the fundamental properties of biomembranes. The properties of lipid bilayers can be studied at different time and length scales. For some properties it is sufficient to envision a membrane as an elastic sheet, while for others it is important to take into account the details of the individual atoms. In this review, we focus on an intermediate level, where groups of atoms are lumped into pseudo-particles to arrive at a coarse-grained, or mesoscopic, description of a bilayer, which is subsequently studied using molecular simulation. The aim of this review is to compare various strategies to coarse grain a biological membrane. The conclusion of this comparison is that there can be many valid different strategies, but that the results obtained by the various mesoscopic models are surprisingly consistent. A second objective of this review is to illustrate how mesoscopic models can be used to obtain a better understanding of experimental systems. The advantage of coarse-grained models is that these can be simulated very efficiently, so that phenomena involving large systems, or requiring a large number of simulations, can be studied in detail. This is illustrated with the study of the relation between the phase behavior of a membrane and the structure of the phospholipids, and the membrane structural changes due to molecules (such as alcohols, cholesterol and anesthetics) adsorbed to the membrane. We then discuss the effect of transmembrane peptides on the local structure of a membrane and the mechanism of vesicle fusion and fission.
Physics Reports-review Section of Physics Letters, 2006, Vol 437, Issue 1-2, p. 1-54