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Solvent-induced membrane stress in biofuel production: molecular insights from small-angle scattering and all-atom molecular dynamics simulations

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Green Chemistry
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The disruptive effect of organic solvents on microbial membranes represents a significant challenge to the economical production of green fuels and value-added chemicals from lignocellulosic feedstocks. One route to overcoming this challenge is to engineer microbes with membranes capable of resisting organic solvent stresses. In this regard, it is useful to understand the mechanisms by which organic solvents disrupt typical biomembranes. Here, molecular dynamics (MD) simulation, complemented by small-angle X-ray and neutron scattering (SANS/SAXS), provide a molecular-scale view of the disruption of a microbial model membrane by 1-butanol and tetrahydrofuran (THF), two common water–organic cosolvent mixtures of importance in biofuel production. Solvent interactions at the interface between the head-group and fatty acid tail regions lead to more dramatic membrane changes than interactions solely at the head-groups or tails. Although both organic solvents are found to partition into the membrane, the depth of solvent penetration into the membrane is quite different. Specifically, 1-butanol localizes near the interface between the lipid heads and tails at low concentrations, but partitions into both the head and tail regions at high concentrations. In contrast, THF, overall, partitions less than 1-butanol and prefers the lipid tail regions. Importantly, the presence of 1-butanol near the head/tail interface introduces drastic membrane changes not seen with THF. The organic solvent interactions with the lipids lead to membrane thinning and fluidization, but more so for 1-butanol than for THF. These results suggest that an aim for the future engineering of robust membranes could be to design lipid head groups that reduce the accumulation of organic solvents at the head–tail interface and that rational designs need also be cognizant of the different solvent-specific mechanisms responsible for membrane disruption.