BACKGROUND: Although biological membranes are organized as lipid bilayers, they contain a substantial fraction of lipids that have a strong tendency to adopt a nonlamellar, most often inverted hexagonal (HII) phase. The polymorphic phase behavior of such nonbilayer lipids has been studied previously with a variety of methods in the fully hydrated state or at different degrees of dehydration. Here, we present a study of the thermotropic phase behavior of the nonbilayer lipids egg phosphatidylethanolamine (EPE) and monogalactosyldiacylglycerol (MGDG) with a focus on interactions between the lipid molecules in the interfacial and headgroup regions. RESULTS: Liposomes were investigated in the dry state by Fourier-transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy and Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC). Dry EPE showed a gel to liquid-crystalline phase transition below 0 degrees C and a liquid-crystalline to HII transition at 100 degrees C. MGDG, on the other hand, was in the liquid-crystalline phase down to -30 degrees C and showed a nonbilayer transition at about 85 degrees C. Mixtures (1:1 by mass) with two different phosphatidylcholines (PC) formed bilayers with no evidence for nonbilayer transitions up to 120 degrees C. FTIR spectroscopy revealed complex interactions between the nonbilayer lipids and PC. Strong H-bonding interactions occurred between the sugar headgroup of MGDG and the phosphate, carbonyl and choline groups of PC. Similarly, the ethanolamine moiety of EPE was H-bonded to the carbonyl and choline groups of PC and probably interacted through charge pairing with the phosphate group. CONCLUSIONS: This study provides a comprehensive characterization of dry membranes containing the two most important nonbilayer lipids (PE and MGDG) in living cells. These data will be of particular relevance for the analysis of interactions between membranes and low molecular weight solutes or soluble proteins that are presumably involved in cellular protection during anhydrobiosis.