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J Gen Physiol. 1998 Jan;111(1):65-74.

Voltage-dependent membrane displacements measured by atomic force microscopy.

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  • 1Department of Cell Biophysics, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg, Germany D-69117, USA.


Cells use polar molecules in the membrane to sense changes in the transmembrane potential. The opening of voltage-gated ion channels and membrane bending due to the inverse flexoelectric effect are two examples of such electromechanical coupling. We have looked for membrane motions in an electric field using atomic (or scanning) force microscopy (AFM) with the intent of studying voltage-dependent conformational changes of ion channels. Voltage-clamped HEK293 cells were either untransfected controls or transfected with Shaker K+ channels. Using a +/- 10-mV peak-peak AC carrier stimulus, untransfected cells moved 0.5-15 nm normal to the plane of the membrane. These movements tracked the voltage at frequencies >1 kHz with a phase lead of 60-120 degrees, as expected of a displacement current. The movement was outward with depolarization, but the holding potential only weakly influenced the amplitude of the movement. In contrast, cells transfected with a noninactivating mutant of Shaker K+channels showed similar movements, but these were sensitive to the holding potential; decreasing with depolarization between -80 and 0 mV. Searching for artifactual origins of these movements, we used open or sealed pipettes and AFM cantilever placements just above the cells. These results were negative, suggesting that the observed movements were produced by the cell membrane rather than by movement of the patch pipette, or by acoustic or electrical interactions of the membrane with the AFM tip. In control cells, the electrical motor may arise from the flexoelectric effect, where changes in potential induce changes in curvature. In transfected cells, it appears that channel-specific movements also occurred. These experiments demonstrate that the AFM may be able to exploit voltage-dependent movements as a source of contrast for imaging membrane components. The electrically induced motility will cause twitching during action potentials, and may have physiological consequences.

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