Cholesterol modulates CFTR confinement in the plasma membrane of primary epithelial cells

Biophys J. 2015 Jul 7;109(1):85-94. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2015.04.042.


The cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) is a plasma-membrane anion channel that, when mutated, causes the disease cystic fibrosis. Although CFTR has been detected in a detergent-resistant membrane fraction prepared from airway epithelial cells, suggesting that it may partition into cholesterol-rich membrane microdomains (lipid rafts), its compartmentalization has not been demonstrated in intact cells and the influence of microdomains on CFTR lateral mobility is unknown. We used live-cell imaging, spatial image correlation spectroscopy, and k-space image correlation spectroscopy to examine the aggregation state of CFTR and its dynamics both within and outside microdomains in the plasma membrane of primary human bronchial epithelial cells. These studies were also performed during treatments that augment or deplete membrane cholesterol. We found two populations of CFTR molecules that were distinguishable based on their dynamics at the cell surface. One population showed confinement and had slow dynamics that were highly cholesterol dependent. The other, more abundant population was less confined and diffused more rapidly. Treatments that deplete the membrane of cholesterol caused the confined fraction and average number of CFTR molecules per cluster to decrease. Elevating cholesterol had the opposite effect, increasing channel aggregation and the fraction of channels displaying confinement, consistent with CFTR recruitment into cholesterol-rich microdomains with dimensions below the optical resolution limit. Viral infection caused the nanoscale microdomains to fuse into large platforms and reduced CFTR mobility. To our knowledge, these results provide the first biophysical evidence for multiple CFTR populations and have implications for regulation of their surface expression and channel function.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adenoviridae
  • Adenovirus Infections, Human / metabolism
  • Bronchi / metabolism
  • Bronchi / virology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cholesterol / metabolism*
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator / genetics
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism*
  • Epithelial Cells / virology
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / genetics
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Membrane Microdomains / metabolism*
  • Membrane Microdomains / virology
  • Microscopy, Confocal
  • Spectrum Analysis / methods


  • CFTR protein, human
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Cholesterol