Direct visualization of dispersed lipid bicontinuous cubic phases by cryo-electron tomography
Bulk and dispersed cubic liquid crystalline phases (cubosomes), present in the body and in living cell membranes, are believed to play an essential role in biological phenomena. Moreover, their biocompatibility is attractive for nutrient or drug delivery system applications. Here the three-dimensional organization of dispersed cubic lipid self-assembled phases is fully revealed by cryo-electron tomography and compared with simulated structures. It is demonstrated that the interior is constituted of a perfect bicontinuous cubic phase, while the outside shows interlamellar attachments, which represent a transition state between the liquid crystalline interior phase and the outside vesicular structure. Therefore, compositional gradients within cubosomes are inferred, with a lipid bilayer separating at least one water channel set from the external aqueous phase. This is crucial to understand and enhance controlled release of target molecules and calls for a revision of postulated transport mechanisms from cubosomes to the aqueous phase.