Peptides that self-assemble into nanometer-sized pores in lipid bilayers could have utility in a variety of biotechnological and clinical applications if we can understand their physical chemical properties and learn to control their membrane selectivity. To empower such control, we have used synthetic molecular evolution to identify the pH-dependent delivery peptides, a family of peptides that assemble into macromolecule-sized pores in membranes at low peptide concentration but only at pH < ∼6. Further advancements will also require better selectivity for specific membranes. Here, we determine the effect of anionic headgroups and bilayer thickness on the mechanism of action of the pH-dependent delivery peptides by measuring binding, secondary structure, and macromolecular poration. The peptide pHD15 partitions and folds equally well into zwitterionic and anionic membranes but is less potent at pore formation in phosphatidylserine-containing membranes. The peptide also binds and folds similarly in membranes of various thicknesses, but its ability to release macromolecules changes dramatically. It causes potent macromolecular poration in vesicles made from phosphatidylcholine with 14 carbon acyl chains, but macromolecular poration decreases sharply with increasing bilayer thickness and does not occur at any peptide concentration in fluid bilayers made from phosphatidylcholine lipids with 20-carbon acyl chains. The effects of headgroup and bilayer thickness on macromolecular poration cannot be accounted for by the amount of peptide bound but instead reflect an inherent selectivity of the peptide for inserting into the membrane-spanning pore state. Molecular dynamics simulations suggest that the effect of thickness is due to hydrophobic match/mismatch between the membrane-spanning peptide and the bilayer hydrocarbon. This remarkable degree of selectivity based on headgroup and especially bilayer thickness is unusual and suggests ways that pore-forming peptides with exquisite selectivity for specific membranes can be designed or evolved.
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