A general computational framework for the dynamics of single- and multi-phase vesicles and membranes

Tiankui Zhang, Charles W. Wolgemuth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The dynamics of thin, membrane-like structures are ubiquitous in nature. They play especially important roles in cell biology. Cell membranes separate the inside of a cell from the outside, and vesicles compartmentalize proteins into functional microregions, such as the lysosome. Proteins and/or lipid molecules also aggregate and deform membranes to carry out cellular functions. For example, some viral particles can induce the membrane to invaginate and form an endocytic vesicle that pulls the virus into the cell. While the physics of membranes has been extensively studied since the pioneering work of Helfrich in the 1970's, simulating the dynamics of large scale deformations remains challenging, especially for cases where the membrane composition is spatially heterogeneous. Here, we develop a general computational framework to simulate the overdamped dynamics of membranes and vesicles. We start by considering a membrane with an energy that is a generalized functional of the shape invariants and also includes line discontinuities that arise due to phase boundaries. Using this energy, we derive the internal restoring forces and construct a level set-based algorithm that can stably simulate the large-scale dynamics of these generalized membranes, including scenarios that lead to membrane fission. This method is applied to solve for shapes of single-phase vesicles using a range of reduced volumes, reduced area differences, and preferred curvatures. Our results match well the experimentally measured shapes of corresponding vesicles. The method is then applied to explore the dynamics of multiphase vesicles, predicting equilibrium shapes and conditions that lead to fission near phase boundaries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number110815
JournalJournal of Computational Physics
StatePublished - Feb 1 2022


  • Biphasic vesicles
  • Endocytosis
  • Exocytosis
  • Membrane dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Numerical Analysis
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Computational Mathematics
  • Applied Mathematics


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