Diffusion of macromolecules and virus-like particles in human cervical mucus

Biophys J. 2001 Oct;81(4):1930-7. doi: 10.1016/S0006-3495(01)75844-4.


To determine whether or not large macromolecules and viruses can diffuse through mucus, we observed the motion of proteins, microspheres, and viruses in fresh samples of human cervical mucus using fluorescent recovery after photobleaching and multiple image photography. Two capsid virus-like particles, human papilloma virus (55 nm, approximately 20,000 kDa) and Norwalk virus (38 nm, approximately 10,000 kDa), as well as most of the globular proteins tested (15-650 kDa) diffused as rapidly in mucus as in saline. Electron microscopy of cervical mucus confirmed that the mesh spacing between mucin fibers is large enough (20-200 nm) for small viruses to diffuse essentially unhindered through mucus. In contrast, herpes simplex virus (180 nm) colocalized with strands of thick mucus, suggesting that herpes simplex virus, unlike the capsid virus particles, makes low-affinity bonds with mucins. Polystyrene microspheres (59-1000 nm) bound more tightly to mucins, bundling them into thick cables. Although immunoglobulins are too small to be slowed by the mesh spacing between mucins, diffusion by IgM was slowed by mucus. Diffusion by IgM-Fc(5 mu), the Fc pentamer core of an IgM with all 10 Fab moieties removed, was comparably slowed by mucus. This suggests that the Fc moieties of antibodies make low-affinity bonds with mucins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cervix Mucus / cytology
  • Cervix Mucus / metabolism*
  • Cervix Mucus / virology*
  • Diffusion
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / metabolism*
  • Herpesvirus 1, Human / ultrastructure
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin M / chemistry
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Microspheres
  • Papillomaviridae / metabolism*
  • Papillomaviridae / ultrastructure
  • Particle Size
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Proteins / ultrastructure


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Immunoglobulin M
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Proteins