Direct translocation of histone molecules across cell membranes

J Cell Sci. 2003 Nov 15;116(Pt 22):4577-86. doi: 10.1242/jcs.00757.


The present work shows that histones are able to directly cross cell plasma membranes and mediate penetration of macromolecules covalently attached to them. Adding a mixture containing the five nucleosomal histones, H1, H2A, H2B, H3 and H4, as well as each of the last four individual histones to intact HeLa and Colo-205 cultured cells resulted in cell penetration and nuclear import of these externally added histones. This was observed by fluorescent and confocal microscopy using fixed and unfixed cells, showing that penetration was not due to the fixation process. Accumulation was also estimated by a quantitative assay that did not require cell fixation and allowed neutralization of surface-bound histones. Translocation into the HeLa and Colo-205 cells occurred at 4 degrees C, in ATP-depleted cells and in cells incubated with sucrose (0.5 M) - conditions that block the endocytic pathway. Furthermore, various endocytosis inhibitors such as colchicine, nocodazole, cytochalasin D, brefeldin A, chloroquine and nystatin did not have any effect on the penetration process. Thus, cellular uptake was mostly due to direct translocation of the histones through the cell plasma membrane and not to endocytosis. The histones were also able to mediate penetration of covalently attached bovine serum albumin (BSA) molecules, indicating their potential as carriers for the delivery of macromolecules into living mammalian cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biological Transport / physiology*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Endocytosis / drug effects
  • Endocytosis / physiology
  • HeLa Cells
  • Histones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Karyopherins / metabolism
  • Lymphocytes / metabolism
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Nocodazole / pharmacology
  • Sucrose / metabolism


  • Histones
  • Karyopherins
  • Sucrose
  • Nocodazole