Lipid bilayers composed of non-hydroxy sphingosine ceramide (CER NS), cholesterol (CHOL), and free fatty acids (FFAs), which are components of the human skin barrier, are studied via molecular dynamics simulations. Since mixtures of these lipids exist in dense gel phases with little molecular mobility at physiological conditions, care must be taken to ensure that the simulations become decorrelated from the initial conditions. Thus, we propose and validate an equilibration protocol based on simulated tempering, in which the simulation takes a random walk through temperature space, allowing the system to break out of metastable configurations and hence become decorrelated from its initial configuration. After validating the equilibration protocol, which we refer to as random-walk molecular dynamics, the effects of the lipid composition and ceramide tail length on bilayer properties are studied. Systems containing pure CER NS, CER NS + CHOL, and CER NS + CHOL + FFA, with the CER NS fatty acid tail length varied within each CER NS-CHOL-FFA composition, are simulated. The bilayer thickness is found to depend on the structure of the center of the bilayer, which arises as a result of the tail-length asymmetry between the lipids studied. The hydrogen bonding between the lipid headgroups and with water is found to change with the overall lipid composition, but is mostly independent of the CER fatty acid tail length. Subtle differences in the lateral packing of the lipid tails are also found as a function of CER tail length. Overall, these results provide insight into the experimentally observed trend of altered barrier properties in skin systems where there are more CERs with shorter tails present.
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