The engulfment function of macrophages relies on complex molecular interactions involving both lipids and proteins. In particular, the clearance of apoptotic bodies (efferocytosis) is enabled by externalization on the cell target of phosphatidylserine lipids, which activate receptors on macrophages, suggesting that (local) specific lipid-protein interactions are required at least for the initiation of efferocytosis. However, in addition to apoptotic cells, macrophages can engulf foreign bodies that vary substantially in size from a few nanometers to microns, suggesting that nonspecific interactions over a wide range of length scales could be relevant. Here, we use model lipid membranes (made of phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylserine, and ceramide) and rat alveolar macrophages to show how lipid bilayer properties probed by small-angle x-ray scattering and solid-state 2H NMR correlate with engulfment rates measured by flow cytometry. We find that engulfment of protein-free model lipid vesicles is promoted by the presence of phosphatidylserine lipids but inhibited by ceramide, in accord with a previous study of apoptotic cells. We conclude that the roles of phosphatidylserine and ceramide in phagocytosis is based, at least in part, on lipid-mediated modification of membrane physical properties, including interactions at large length scales as well as local lipid ordering and possible domain formation.
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