High cholesterol levels in the blood increase the risk of atherosclerosis. A common explanation is that the cholesterol increase in the plasma membrane perturbs the shape and functions of cells by disrupting the cell signaling pathways and the formation of membrane rafts. In this work, we show that after enhanced transient uptake of cholesterol, mono-component lipid bilayers change their shape similarly to cell membranes in vivo. The bilayers either expel lipid protrusions or spread laterally as a result of the ensuing changes in their lipid density, the mechanical constraints imposed on them, and the properties of cyclodextrin used as a cholesterol donor. In light of the increasingly recognized link between membrane tension and cell behavior, we propose that the physical adaptation of the plasma membrane to cholesterol uptake may play a substantial role in the biological response.
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