To understand how membrane-active peptides (MAPs) function in vivo, it is essential to obtain structural information about them in their membrane-bound state. Most biophysical approaches rely on the use of bilayers prepared from synthetic phospholipids, i.e. artificial model membranes. A particularly successful structural method is solid-state NMR, which makes use of macroscopically oriented lipid bilayers to study selectively isotope-labelled peptides. Native biomembranes, however, have a far more complex lipid composition and a significant non-lipidic content (protein and carbohydrate). Model membranes, therefore, are not really adequate to address questions concerning for example the selectivity of these membranolytic peptides against prokaryotic vs eukaryotic cells, their varying activities against different bacterial strains, or other related biological issues.
Here, we discuss a solid-state 19F-NMR approach that has been developed for structural studies of MAPs in lipid bilayers, and how this can be translated to measurements in native biomembranes. We review the essentials of the methodology and discuss key objectives in the practice of 19F-labelling of peptides. Furthermore, the preparation of macroscopically oriented biomembranes on solid supports is discussed in the context of other membrane models. Two native biomembrane systems are presented as examples: human erythrocyte ghosts as representatives of eukaryotic cell membranes, and protoplasts from Micrococcus luteus as membranes from Gram-positive bacteria. Based on our latest experimental experience with the antimicrobial peptide gramicidin S, the benefits and some implicit drawbacks of using such supported native membranes in solid-state 19F-NMR analysis are discussed.