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Biochim Biophys Acta Biomembr. 2018 Mar;1860(3):710-717. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamem.2017.12.014. Epub 2017 Dec 18.

Inorganic mercury and cadmium induce rigidity in eukaryotic lipid extracts while mercury also ruptures red blood cells.

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Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada.
Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta T2N 1N4, Canada. Electronic address:


Hg and Cd are non-essential toxic heavy metals that bioaccumulate in the tissues of living systems but less is known about their interactions with Eukaryotic lipid bilayers. Microscopy experiments showed that Hg and Cd changed the cell morphology of rabbit erythrocytes while Hg also induced cell rupture. As membranes are one of the first available targets, our study aimed to better understand metal-lipid interactions that could lead to toxic effects. Fluorescence spectroscopy (Laurdan Generalized Polarization) and dynamic light scattering were used to analyze metal-induced changes in membrane fluidity and the size of liposomes composed of Brain (Porcine), Liver (Bovine), Heart (Bovine) and Yeast (S. cerevisiae) lipid extracts. Under physiological chloride and pH levels, Hg irreversibly cleaves plasmalogens resulting in an increase in membrane rigidity. These lipids are enriched in Brain, Heart and Erythrocyte membranes and are important in signalling and the protection against oxidative stress. Interestingly, Hg had a heavily reduced effect on the plasmalogen-free Yeast extract membrane. In contrast, Cd induced rigidity by targeting negatively charged phosphatidic acid, phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylinositol, phosphatidylglycerol and cardiolipin in these extracts. Metal-induced liposome aggregation depended on the proportion of negatively charged lipids/plasmalogen and even the order of metal addition. Our results show that data from model systems correlate with trends observed in complex biological extracts and red blood cells and serve as a predictive tool for analyzing metal-lipid interactions. The determination of the specific lipid targets for Hg and Cd provides new insights how these metals exert toxic effects on cell membranes.


Inorganic cadmium; Inorganic mercury; Laurdan; Metal-lipid interactions; Plasmalogen; Polar extract membranes

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