How Lipid Membranes Affect Pore Forming Toxin Activity

Acc Chem Res. 2015 Dec 15;48(12):3073-9. doi: 10.1021/acs.accounts.5b00403. Epub 2015 Dec 7.


Pore forming toxins (PFTs) evolved to permeate the plasma membrane of target cells. This is achieved in a multistep mechanism that usually involves binding of soluble protein monomer to the lipid membrane, oligomerization at the plane of the membrane, and insertion of part of the polypeptide chain across the lipid membrane to form a conductive channel. Introduced pores allow uncontrolled transport of solutes across the membrane, inflicting damage to the target cell. PFTs are usually studied from the perspective of structure-function relationships, often neglecting the important role of the bulk membrane properties on the PFT mechanism of action. In this Account, we discuss how membrane lateral heterogeneity, thickness, and fluidity influence the pore forming process of PFTs. In general, lipid molecules are more accessible for binding in fluid membranes due to steric reasons. When PFT specifically binds ordered domains, it usually recognizes a specific lipid distribution pattern, like sphingomyelin (SM) clusters or SM/cholesterol complexes, and not individual lipid species. Lipid domains were also suggested to act as an additional concentration platform facilitating PFT oligomerization, but this is yet to be shown. The last stage in PFT action is the insertion of the transmembrane segment across the membranes to build the transmembrane pore walls. Conformational changes are a spontaneous process, and sufficient free energy has to be available for efficient membrane penetration. Therefore, fluid bilayers are permeabilized more readily in comparison to highly ordered and thicker liquid ordered lipid phase (Lo). Energetically more costly insertion into the Lo phase can be driven by the hydrophobic mismatch between the thinner liquid disordered phase (Ld) and large protein complexes, which are unable to tilt like single transmembrane segments. In the case of proteolipid pores, membrane properties can directly modulate pore size, stability, and even selectivity. Finally, events associated with pore formation can modulate properties of the lipid membrane and affect its organization. Model membranes do not necessarily reproduce the physicochemical properties of the native cellular membrane, and caution is needed when transferring results from model to native lipid membranes. In this context, the utilization of novel approaches that enable studying PFTs on living cells at a single molecule level should reveal complex protein-lipid membrane interactions in greater detail.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Membrane / chemistry
  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Lipid Bilayers / chemistry*
  • Models, Molecular
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins / chemistry*


  • Lipid Bilayers
  • Pore Forming Cytotoxic Proteins