Throughout the life span of a lipoprotein particle, the type and number of exchangeable apolipoproteins on its surface varies with particle size, suggesting a role of surface curvature on the lipid-binding properties of these proteins. Peptides 18A, Ac-18A-NH2, Ac-18R-NH2, 37pA, and 37aA have been designed to investigate the lipid-binding properties of the amphipathic alpha-helix structural motif that appears to modulate the lipid-binding properties of the exchangeable plasma apolipoproteins. We report here the results of a quantitative thermodynamic characterization of the effects of modifying helix length and of varying both the location of charged residues about the polar face of the peptides and vesicle size on the lipid affinity and depth of bilayer penetration for model amphipathic alpha-helices. Partition coefficients, Kp, were determined by fluorescence spectroscopy, and binding enthalpies, deltaH, by titration calorimetry. The results indicate that Kp values are on the order of 10(5), with similar deltaG(o) values for the interactions of the peptides with vesicles of various sizes. It appears that a class A motif and increased alpha-helical content optimize binding for 18-residue peptides. The interactions of the model peptides with 20 nm SUV are enthalpically driven with small, negative entropy changes; however, interactions for larger vesicles are entropically driven, likely due to disordering of bilayer hydrocarbon chains. Thermodynamic data indicate that 37pA and 37aA induce greater disordering of bilayer hydrocarbon chains than Ac-18A-NH2. The results of this study suggest that the type of interaction, i.e., enthalpically or entropically driven, may be modulated by the lateral compressibility of the bilayer membrane.