Supramolecular Structure of the Casein Micelle

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Journal of Dairy Science



Publication Date


First Page


Last Page



The supramolecular structure of colloidal casein micelles in milk was investigated by using a sample preparation protocol based on adsorption of proteins onto a poly-l-lysine and parlodion-coated copper grid, staining of proteins and calcium phosphate by uranyl oxalate, instantaneous freezing, and drying under a high vacuum. High-resolution transmission electron microscopy stereo-images were obtained showing the interior structure of casein micelles. On the basis of our interpretation of these images, an interlocked lattice model was developed in which both casein-calcium phosphate aggregates and casein polymer chains act together to maintain casein micelle integrity. The caseins form linear and branched chains (2 to 5 proteins long) interlocked by the casein-stabilized calcium phosphate nanoclusters. This model suggests that stabilization of calcium phosphate nanoclusters by phosphoserine domains of αs1-, αs2-, or β-casein, or their combination, would orient their hydrophobic domains outward, allowing interaction and binding to other casein molecules. Other interactions between the caseins, such as calcium bridging, could also occur and further stabilize the supramolecule. The combination of having an interlocked lattice structure and multiple interactions results in an open, sponge-like colloidal supramolecule that is resistant to spatial changes and disintegration. Hydrophobic interactions between caseins surrounding a calcium phosphate nanocluster would prevent complete dissociation of casein micelles when the calcium phosphate nanoclusters are solubilized. Likewise, calcium bridging and other electrostatic interactions between caseins would prevent dissociation of the casein micelles into casein-calcium phosphate nanocluster aggregates when milk is cooled or urea is added to milk, and hydrophobic interactions are reduced. The appearance of both polymer chains and small aggregate particles during milk synthesis would also be expected based on this interlocked lattice model of casein micelles, and its supramolecule structure thus exhibits the principles of self-aggregation, interdependence, and diversity observed in nature.