Interactions between lipid and cholesterol molecules in membranes play an important role in the structural and functional properties of cell membranes. Although structural properties of lipid-cholesterol mixtures have been extensively studied, an understanding of the role of cholesterol in the lateral organization of bilayers has been elusive. In this article, we propose a simple yet powerful model, based on self-consistent mean-field theory and molecular dynamics simulations, for lipid bilayers containing cholesterol. Properties predicted by our model are shown to be in excellent agreement with experimental data. Our model predicts that cholesterol induces structural changes in the bilayer through the formation of regions of ordered lipids surrounding each cholesterol molecule. We find that the "smooth" and "rough" sides of cholesterol play crucial roles in formation and distribution of the ordered regions. Our model is predictive in that input parameters are obtained from independent atomistic molecular dynamics simulations. The model and method are general enough to describe other heterogeneous lipid bilayers, including lipid rafts.
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