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Open Access Research article

Nanoelectropulse-driven membrane perturbation and small molecule permeabilization

P Thomas Vernier12*, Yinghua Sun3 and Martin A Gundersen1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Electrical Engineering-Electrophysics, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles CA, 90089-0271, USA

2 MOSIS, Information Sciences Institute, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90292-6695, USA

3 Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles CA, 90089-0271, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Cell Biology 2006, 7:37  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-7-37

Published: 19 October 2006

Abstract

Background

Nanosecond, megavolt-per-meter pulsed electric fields scramble membrane phospholipids, release intracellular calcium, and induce apoptosis. Flow cytometric and fluorescence microscopy evidence has associated phospholipid rearrangement directly with nanoelectropulse exposure and supports the hypothesis that the potential that develops across the lipid bilayer during an electric pulse drives phosphatidylserine (PS) externalization.

Results

In this work we extend observations of cells exposed to electric pulses with 30 ns and 7 ns durations to still narrower pulse widths, and we find that even 3 ns pulses are sufficient to produce responses similar to those reported previously. We show here that in contrast to unipolar pulses, which perturb membrane phospholipid order, tracked with FM1-43 fluorescence, only at the anode side of the cell, bipolar pulses redistribute phospholipids at both the anode and cathode poles, consistent with migration of the anionic PS head group in the transmembrane field. In addition, we demonstrate that, as predicted by the membrane charging hypothesis, a train of shorter pulses requires higher fields to produce phospholipid scrambling comparable to that produced by a time-equivalent train of longer pulses (for a given applied field, 30, 4 ns pulses produce a weaker response than 4, 30 ns pulses). Finally, we show that influx of YO-PRO-1, a fluorescent dye used to detect early apoptosis and activation of the purinergic P2X7 receptor channels, is observed after exposure of Jurkat T lymphoblasts to sufficiently large numbers of pulses, suggesting that membrane poration occurs even with nanosecond pulses when the electric field is high enough. Propidium iodide entry, a traditional indicator of electroporation, occurs with even higher pulse counts.

Conclusion

Megavolt-per-meter electric pulses as short as 3 ns alter the structure of the plasma membrane and permeabilize the cell to small molecules. The dose responses of cells to unipolar and bipolar pulses ranging from 3 ns to 30 ns duration support the hypothesis that a field-driven charging of the membrane dielectric causes the formation of pores on a nanosecond time scale, and that the anionic phospholipid PS migrates electrophoretically along the wall of these pores to the external face of the membrane.