Genetic, cellular, and structural characterization of the membrane potential-dependent cell-penetrating peptide translocation pore

Trofimenko E, Grasso G, Heulot M, Chevalier N, Deriu MA, Dubuis G, Arribat Y, Serulla M, Michel S, Vantomme G, Ory F, Dam LC, Puyal J, Amati F, Lüthi A, Danani A, Widmann C. Elife. 2021 Oct 29;10:e69832.

Cell-penetrating peptides (CPPs) allow intracellular delivery of bioactive cargo molecules. The mechanisms allowing CPPs to enter cells are ill-defined. Using a CRISPR/Cas9-based screening, we discovered that KCNQ5, KCNN4, and KCNK5 potassium channels positively modulate cationic CPP direct translocation into cells by decreasing the transmembrane potential (Vm). These findings provide the first unbiased genetic validation of the role of Vm in CPP translocation in cells. In silico modeling and live cell experiments indicate that CPPs, by bringing positive charges on the outer surface of the plasma membrane, decrease the Vm to very low values (-150 mV or less), a situation we have coined megapolarization that then triggers formation of water pores used by CPPs to enter cells. Megapolarization lowers the free energy barrier associated with CPP membrane translocation. Using dyes of varying dimensions in CPP co-entry experiments, the diameter of the water pores in living cells was estimated to be 2 (-5) nm, in accordance with the structural characteristics of the pores predicted by in silico modeling. Pharmacological manipulation to lower transmembrane potential boosted CPP cellular internalization in zebrafish and mouse models. Besides identifying the first proteins that regulate CPP translocation, this work characterized key mechanistic steps used by CPPs to cross cellular membranes. This opens the ground for strategies aimed at improving the ability of cells to capture CPP-linked cargos in vitro and in vivo.

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