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J Biol Chem. 2001 May 4;276(18):14628-33. Epub 2001 Feb 2.

Coupling of cholesterol and cone-shaped lipids in bilayers augments membrane permeabilization by the cholesterol-specific toxins streptolysin O and Vibrio cholerae cytolysin.

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Institute of Medical Microbiology and Hygiene, University of Mainz, Obere Zahlbacher Strasse 67, D55101 Mainz, Germany.


Vibrio cholerae cytolysin (VCC) forms oligomeric pores in lipid bilayers containing cholesterol. Membrane permeabilization is inefficient if the sterol is embedded within bilayers prepared from phosphatidylcholine only but is greatly enhanced if the target membrane also contains ceramide. Although the enhancement of VCC action is stereospecific with respect to cholesterol, we show here that no such specificity applies to the two stereocenters in ceramide; all four stereoisomers of ceramide enhanced VCC activity in cholesterol-containing bilayers. A wide variety of ceramide analogs were as effective as D-erythro-ceramide, as was diacylglycerol, suggesting that the effect of ceramide exemplifies a general trend of lipids with a small headgroup to augment the activity of VCC. Incorporation of these cone-shaped lipids into cholesterol-containing bilayers also gave similar effects with streptolysin O, another cholesterol-specific but structurally unrelated cytolysin. In contrast, the activity of staphylococcal alpha-hemolysin, which does not share with the other toxins the requirement for cholesterol, was far less affected by the presence of lipids with a conical shape. The collective data indicate that sphingolipids and glycerolipids do not interact with the cytolysins specifically. Instead, lipids that have a conical molecular shape appear to effect a change in the energetic state of membrane cholesterol that in turn augments the interaction of the sterol with the cholesterol-specific cytolysins.

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