Cytolytic peptides induce biphasic permeability changes in mammalian cell membranes

J Immunol Methods. 2001 Jun 1;252(1-2):63-71. doi: 10.1016/s0022-1759(01)00334-9.


The cytolytic peptides melittin and gramicidin S are naturally occurring agents that provide a comparative model for studies of complement, immunotoxin and cell-mediated membrane permeability. Most attempts to characterize cytolytic peptides have used model membrane systems including phospholipid vesicles or erythrocytes. Membrane vesicles permit the use of self-quenching concentrations of fluorescent permeability markers, while erythrocytes release measurable hemoglobin. Attempts at measuring early membrane permeability changes in nucleated mammalian cells have been limited. To measure the kinetics of mammalian cell membrane permeability changes induced by cytolytic peptides, we developed a 96-well fluorescence cytolysis assay using the cytoplasmic fluorescent dye calcein as the membrane permeability marker. To facilitate rapid assessment of membrane permeability, trypan blue was added to the assay solution to quench (a) released fluorescence and (b) retained intracellular fluorescence. Trypan blue also provided a complementary visual assessment of cell viability. Using this assay, a detailed kinetic analysis demonstrated permeability of the cell membranes within seconds of exposure to the cytolytic peptides. The rapid permeabilization of the cell membranes was confirmed by flow cytometry using the calcium indicator dye fluo-3. The assay also demonstrated a second slower phase of marker release over the next several hours. The fluorescence cytolysis assay was able to reliably detect the biphasic permeability changes associated with the melittin and gramicidin S peptides suggesting the potential utility of this assay in the assessment of other cytolytic agents.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Membrane Permeability / drug effects*
  • Cytotoxins / pharmacology*
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Gramicidin / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Melitten / pharmacology*
  • Peptides / pharmacology*
  • Sheep
  • Time Factors
  • Trypan Blue


  • Cytotoxins
  • Fluoresceins
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Peptides
  • Gramicidin
  • Melitten
  • Trypan Blue
  • fluorexon