Microfluidic experiments reveal that antifreeze proteins bound to ice crystals suffice to prevent their growth

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Jan 22;110(4):1309-14. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1213603110. Epub 2013 Jan 8.


Antifreeze proteins (AFPs) are a subset of ice-binding proteins that control ice crystal growth. They have potential for the cryopreservation of cells, tissues, and organs, as well as for production and storage of food and protection of crops from frost. However, the detailed mechanism of action of AFPs is still unclear. Specifically, there is controversy regarding reversibility of binding of AFPs to crystal surfaces. The experimentally observed dependence of activity of AFPs on their concentration in solution appears to indicate that the binding is reversible. Here, by a series of experiments in temperature-controlled microfluidic devices, where the medium surrounding ice crystals can be exchanged, we show that the binding of hyperactive Tenebrio molitor AFP to ice crystals is practically irreversible and that surface-bound AFPs are sufficient to inhibit ice crystal growth even in solutions depleted of AFPs. These findings rule out theories of AFP activity relying on the presence of unbound protein molecules.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antifreeze Proteins / chemistry*
  • Antifreeze Proteins / metabolism*
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Ice*
  • Insect Proteins / chemistry
  • Insect Proteins / metabolism
  • Microfluidic Analytical Techniques
  • Protein Binding
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / chemistry
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / metabolism
  • Tenebrio / metabolism


  • Antifreeze Proteins
  • Ice
  • Insect Proteins
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins