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Microbiol Rev. 1995 Jun; 59(2): 201–222.
PMCID: PMC239360

Mechanisms of membrane toxicity of hydrocarbons.


Microbial transformations of cyclic hydrocarbons have received much attention during the past three decades. Interest in the degradation of environmental pollutants as well as in applications of microorganisms in the catalysis of chemical reactions has stimulated research in this area. The metabolic pathways of various aromatics, cycloalkanes, and terpenes in different microorganisms have been elucidated, and the genetics of several of these routes have been clarified. The toxicity of these compounds to microorganisms is very important in the microbial degradation of hydrocarbons, but not many researchers have studied the mechanism of this toxic action. In this review, we present general ideas derived from the various reports mentioning toxic effects. Most importantly, lipophilic hydrocarbons accumulate in the membrane lipid bilayer, affecting the structural and functional properties of these membranes. As a result of accumulated hydrocarbon molecules, the membrane loses its integrity, and an increase in permeability to protons and ions has been observed in several instances. Consequently, dissipation of the proton motive force and impairment of intracellular pH homeostasis occur. In addition to the effects of lipophilic compounds on the lipid part of the membrane, proteins embedded in the membrane are affected. The effects on the membrane-embedded proteins probably result to a large extent from changes in the lipid environment; however, direct effects of lipophilic compounds on membrane proteins have also been observed. Finally, the effectiveness of changes in membrane lipid composition, modification of outer membrane lipopolysaccharide, altered cell wall constituents, and active excretion systems in reducing the membrane concentrations of lipophilic compounds is discussed. Also, the adaptations (e.g., increase in lipid ordering, change in lipid/protein ratio) that compensate for the changes in membrane structure are treated.

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Selected References

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