I was previously taught that cholesterol affects the fluidity of a plasma membrane. At high temperatures, cholesterol decreases fluidity and at low temperatures cholesterol increases fluidity. The Khan academy and Wikipedia pages below say the same thing.

https://www.khanacademy.org/video/cell-membrane-fluidity https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Membrane_fluidity

Yet, in a current college course, the textbook ("Molecular Biology of the Cell 6th" by Bruce Alberts et al.) says that cholesterol reduces the mobility of the first few CH2 groups of a phospholipid's two fatty acid chains. In this way, the cholesterol makes the lipid bilayer more rigid and decreases the lipid bilayer's permeability to small, water-soluble molecules. However, it says that cholestrol does not actually make the membrane less fluid.

Is the textbook from my current course just a more nuanced explanation, or have I misunderstood something else?

  • $\begingroup$ Can you please copy/paste the exact quote? The 4th edition of Alberts clearly says that cholesterol makes the membrane less fluid: "cholesterol tends to make lipid bilayers less fluid at the high concentrations found in most eucaryotic plasma membranes". $\endgroup$
    – user24284
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, cholesterol has different effects on the fluidity at different temperatures. When it is cold, cholesterol increases fluidity, preventing the membrane from freezing. When it is warmer, cholesterol decreases fluidity. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2017 at 0:43
  • $\begingroup$ Lehninger say the same thing. Sterols decrease fluidity $\endgroup$
    – Bakshi
    Commented Jan 8, 2018 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ At normal temperatures, cholesterol makes the lipid bi-layer stronger but less fluid because of the way that it forms hydrogen bonds with neighbouring phospholipid and glycolipid heads and fills the space between the bent fatty acid tails. Unfortunately I am still confused about how increasing and decreasing temperature impacts the fluidity. $\endgroup$
    – Finnigan
    Commented Sep 6, 2018 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ I've posted a brief answer, but I don't have a link to the Bruce Alberts text to address the specific claim of the CH2 groups. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Jan 2, 2019 at 10:49

2 Answers 2


Cholesterol certainly affects plasma membrane fluidity. In 1978 Cooper found that increasing the ratio of cholesterol to phospholipids decreased the membrane fluidity. This also reduces membrane permeability and reduces the survival of the cells (red blood cells in that case). I imagine this is where the textbooks draw their conclusions.

More recently Rog et al., 2008 demonstrated the importance of the hydroxyl group in the cholesterol by replacing it with a ketone. This affected fluidity and flip flop rate.


In High temperatures, cholesterol stabilises the plasma membrane through raising the melting point, meaning the degree of fluidity is kept the same.

In Low temperatures, cholesterol intercalates between the phospholipid bi-layer and therefore prevents clustering. Clustering is the stiffening of phospholipids (which can be caused by low temperatures) This controls fluidity.

Cholesterol can also decrease the permeability of the cell membrane towards hydrophilic molecules and ions such as Sodium and Hydrogen.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ While this is correct, sourcing your information is important. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Oct 5, 2019 at 1:07

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