Structural transitions in ceramide cubic phases during formation of the human skin barrier

Wennberg, C. L.; Narangifard, A.; Lundborg, M.; Lindahl, E.; Norlén, L.


The stratum corneum is the outermost layer of human skin and the primary barrier toward the environment. The barrier function is maintained by stacked layers of saturated long-chain ceramides, free fatty acids, and cholesterol. This structure is formed through a reorganization of glycosylceramide-based bilayers with cubic-like symmetry into ceramide-based bilayers with stacked lamellar symmetry. The process is accompanied by deglycosylation of glycosylceramides and dehydration of the skin barrier lipid structure. Using coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulation, we show the effects of deglycosylation and dehydration on bilayers of human skin glycosylceramides and ceramides, folded in three dimensions with cubic (gyroid) symmetry. Deglycosylation of glycosylceramides destabilizes the cubic lipid bilayer phase and triggers a cubic-to-lamellar phase transition. Furthermore, subsequent dehydration of the deglycosylated lamellar ceramide system closes the remaining pores between adjacent lipid layers and locally induces a ceramide chain transformation from a hairpin-like to a splayed conformation.