Lower tract respiratory diseases such as pneumonia are pervasive, affecting millions of people every year. The stability of the air/water interface in alveoli and the mechanical performance during the breathing cycle are regulated by the structural and elastic properties of pulmonary surfactant membranes (PSMs). Respiratory dysfunctions and pathologies often result in, or are caused by, impairment of the PSMs. However, a gap remains between our knowledge of the etiology of lung diseases and the fundamental properties of PSMs. For example, bacterial pneumonia in humans and mice has been associated with aberrant levels of cardiolipin, a mitochondrial-specific, highly unsaturated 4-tailed anionic phospholipid, in lung fluid, which likely disrupts the structural and mechanical integrity of PSMs. Specifically, cardiolipin is expected to significantly alter PSM elasticity due to its intrinsic molecular properties favoring membrane folding away from a flat configuration. In this paper, we investigate the structural and mechanical properties of the lipidic components of PSMs using lipid-based models as well as bovine extracts affected by the addition of pathological cardiolipin levels. Specifically, using a combination of optical and atomic force microscopy with a surface force apparatus, we demonstrate that cardiolipin strongly promotes hemifusion of PSMs and that these local membrane contacts propagate at larger scales, resulting in global stiffening of lung membranes.
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