Like other intracellular fusion events, the homotypic fusion of yeast vacuoles requires a Rab GTPase, a large Rab effector complex, SNARE proteins which can form a 4-helical bundle, and the SNARE disassembly chaperones Sec17p and Sec18p. In addition to these proteins, specific vacuole lipids are required for efficient fusion in vivo and with the purified organelle. Reconstitution of vacuole fusion with all purified components reveals that high SNARE levels can mask the requirement for a complex mixture of vacuole lipids. At lower, more physiological SNARE levels, neutral lipids with small headgroups that tend to form non-bilayer structures (phosphatidylethanolamine, diacylglycerol, and ergosterol) are essential. Membranes without these three lipids can dock and complete trans-SNARE pairing but cannot rearrange their lipids for fusion.
All cells are enclosed with a membrane that is made of phospholipid molecules, and many of the structures found inside cells—such as the vacuoles in plant and fungal cells—are also enclosed with a phospholipid membrane. To form a membrane, the phospholipid molecules—which have a phosphate head and two fatty acid tails—arrange themselves in two layers, with the fatty acid tails pointing into the membrane, and the phosphate heads pointing outwards. This structure is known as a phospholipid bilayer.
Vacuoles are filled with water that contains various proteins and molecules in solution, and adjust their volume to keep the concentrations of substances in the cell in balance. To do this, the vacuoles fuse with each other. This fusion process requires dramatic spatial rearrangements of the phospholipid molecules.
The SNARE family of proteins plays a key role in membrane fusion. As the two membranes come together, SNARE proteins located on each membrane form a complex known as a trans-SNARE complex. This docks the vacuole in place beside another vacuole while the phospholipid molecules in the two membranes rearrange. However, much less is known about the phospholipid molecules that are involved in the fusion process.
Now, Zick et al. have shown that three types of phospholipid molecules must be present for membrane fusion to be completed. These have in common that their phosphate ‘headgroups’ are small and they do not tend to form bilayers. The vacuoles can dock beside each other if these small headgroup phospholipid molecules are not present, but the bilayer lipids in the vacuole membranes cannot rearrange themselves in the absence of these particular lipids.
The importance of these nonbilayer lipid molecules had not previously been established, as the majority of experiments investigating membrane fusion used concentrations of SNARE proteins that were much higher than those found physiologically. At such high concentrations, fusion can go ahead without the nonbilayer lipid molecules being present.