Molecular basis of mechanotransduction in living cells

O. P. Hamill, B. Martinac

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

953 Scopus citations


The simplest cell-like structure, the lipid bilayer vesicle, can respond to mechanical deformation by elastic membrane dilation/thinning and curvature changes. When a protein is inserted in the lipid bilayer, an energetic cost may arise because of hydrophobic mismatch between the protein and bilayer. Localized changes in bilayer thickness and curvature may compensate for this mismatch. The peptides alamethicin and gramicidin and the bacterial membrane protein MscL form mechanically gated (MG) channels when inserted in lipid bilayers. Their mechanosensitivity may arise because channel opening is associated with a change in the protein's membrane-occupied area, its hydrophobic mismatch with the bilayer, excluded water volume, or a combination of these effects. As a consequence, bilayer dilation/thinning or changes in local membrane curvature may shift the equilibrium between channel conformations. Recent evidence indicates that MG channels in specific animal cell types (e.g., Xenopus oocytes) are also gated directly by bilayer tension. However, animal cells lack the rigid cell wall that protects bacteria and plants cells from excessive expansion of their bilayer. Instead, a cortical cytoskeleton (CSK) provides a structural framework that allows the animal cell to maintain a stable excess membrane area (i.e., for its volume occupied by a sphere) in the form of membrane folds, ruffles, and microvilli. This excess membrane provides an immediate membrane reserve that may protect the bilayer from sudden changes in bilayer tension. Contractile elements within the CSK may locally slacken or tighten bilayer tension to regulate mechanosensitivity, whereas membrane blebbing and tight seal patch formation, by using up membrane reserves, may increase membrane mechanosensitivity. In specific cases, extracellular and/or CSK proteins (i.e., tethers) may transmit mechanical forces to the process (e.g., hair cell MG channels, MS intracellular Ca2+ release, and transmitter release) without increasing tension in the lipid bilayer.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)685-740
Number of pages56
JournalPhysiological Reviews
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology (medical)


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