The sculpting of membranes into dynamic, curved shapes is central to intracellular cargo trafficking. Though the generation of membrane curvature during trafficking necessarily involves both lipids and membrane-associated proteins, current mechanistic views focus primarily on the formation of rigid cages and curved scaffolds by protein assemblies. Here we report on a different mechanism for the control of membrane deformation, unrelated to the imposition of predefined curvature, involving modulation of membrane material properties: Sar1, a GTPase that regulates vesicle trafficking from the endoplasmic reticulum, lowers the rigidity of the lipid bilayer membrane to which it binds. In vitro assays in which optically trapped microspheres create controlled membrane deformations revealed a monotonic decline in bending modulus as a function of Sar1 concentration, down to nearly zero rigidity, indicating a dramatic lowering of the energetic cost of curvature generation. This is the first demonstration that a vesicle trafficking protein lowers the rigidity of its target membrane, leading to a new conceptual framework for vesicle biogenesis.
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