The interaction of multilamellar phosphatidylcholine vesicles with the non-ionic detergent Triton X-100 has been studied under equilibrium conditions, specially in the sub-lytic range of surfactant concentrations. Equilibrium was achieved in less than 24 h. Estimations of detergent binding to bilayers, using [3H]Triton X-100, indicate that the amphiphile is incorporated even at very low concentrations (below its critical micellar concentration); a dramatic increase in the amount of bound Triton X-100 occurs at detergent concentrations just below those producing membrane solubilization. Solubilization occurs at phospholipid/detergent molar ratios near 0.65 irrespective of lipid concentration.

The perturbation produced by the surfactant in the phospholipid bilayer has been studied by differential scanning calorimetry, NMR and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy. At low detergent concentration (lipid/detergent molar ratios above 3), a reduction in 2H-NMR quadrupolar splitting occurs, suggesting a decrease in the static order of the acyl chains; the same effect is detected by Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy in the form of blue shifts of the methylene stretching vibration bands. Simultaneously, the enthalpy variation of the main phospholipid phase transition is decreased by about a third with respect to its value in the pure lipid/water system. For phospholipid/detergent molar ratios between 3 and 1, the decrease in lipid static order does not proceed any further; rather an increase in fluidity is observed, characterized by a marked decrease in the midpoint transition temperature of the gel-to-fluid phospholipid transition. At the same time an isotropic component is apparent in both 31P-NMR and 2H-NMR spectra, and a new low-temperature endotherm is detected in differential scanning calorimetric traces. When phospholipid and Triton X-100 are present at equimolar ratios some bilayer structure persists, as judged from calorimetric observations, but NMR reveals only one-component isotropic signals. At lipid/detergent molar ratios below unity, the NMR lines become narrower, the main (lamellar) calorimetric endotherm tends to vanish and solubilization occurs.