Because gallstones form so frequently in human bile, pathophysiologically relevant supersaturated model biles are commonly employed to study cholesterol crystal formation. We used cryo-transmission electron microscopy, complemented by polarizing light microscopy, to investigate early stages of cholesterol nucleation in model bile. In the system studied, the proposed microscopic sequence involves the evolution of small unilamellar to multilamellar vesicles to lamellar liquid crystals and finally to cholesterol crystals. Small aliquots of a concentrated (total lipid concentration = 29.2 g/dl) model bile containing 8.5% cholesterol, 22.9% egg yolk lecithin, and 68.6% taurocholate (all mole%) were vitrified at 2 min to 20 days after fourfold dilution to induce supersaturation. Mixed micelles together with a category of vesicles denoted primordial, small unilamellar vesicles of two distinct morphologies (sphere/ellipsoid and cylinder/arachoid), large unilamellar vesicles, multilamellar vesicles, and cholesterol monohydrate crystals were imaged. No evidence of aggregation/fusion of small unilamellar vesicles to form multilamellar vesicles was detected. Low numbers of multilamellar vesicles were present, some of which were sufficiently large to be identified as liquid crystals by polarizing light microscopy. Dimensions, surface areas, and volumes of spherical/ellipsoidal and cylindrical/arachoidal vesicles were quantified. Early stages in the separation of vesicles from micelles, referred to as primordial vesicles, were imaged 23-31 min after dilution. Observed structures such as enlarged micelles in primordial vesicle interiors, segments of bilayer, and faceted edges at primordial vesicle peripheries are probably early stages of small unilamellar vesicle assembly. A decrease in the mean surface area of spherical/ellipsoidal vesicles was correlated with the increased production of cholesterol crystals at 10-20 days after supersaturation by dilution, supporting the role of small unilamellar vesicles as key players in cholesterol nucleation and as cholesterol donors to crystals. This is the first visualization of an intermediate structure that has been temporally linked to the development of small unilamellar vesicles in the separation of vesicles from micelles in a model bile and suggests a time-resolved system for further investigation.
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