Saturday, March 12, 2011

Different Mechanisms for Transporting DNA into the Cell

Following two basic mechanisms are assumed to contribute to the transport of the DNA into the cell.

1) An active, energy dependent uptake of the transfection complexes by a process called endocytosisd

2) “Passive” membrane fusion and release of DNA into the cytoplasm.

The compaction agent used in the first step largely determines which mechanism is more important in a given case. For polycationic molecules, a direct interaction (fusion) with the hydrophobic membranes is not likely. The most likely way for them to enter the cell would be by endocytosis. Cationic lipids, on the other hand, can potentially interact and fuse with the membrane. Experiments with synthetic membranes have demonstrated the fusogenic ability of liposomes formed by cationic lipids,but convincing data that this mechanism is also operative during transfection of living cells are still lacking. Other reports seem to indicate that liposomes also preferably enter the cell by endocytosis.

Endocytosis is a process by which cells take up extracellular molecules such as cholesterol via a receptor-mediated mechanism. Cholesterol, insoluble in aqueous solutions, naturally occurs in association with the so-called low-density lipoproteins (LDL). The uptake of cholesterol by the cells depends on receptors specific for LDL. In a first step the ligands bind to the receptor. Receptors occupied with ligands form clusters and induce the formation of a clathrin-coated pit. Clathrin induces the expansion of the pit. Such pits can subsequently enter the cell as a membrane-bound vesicle containing the ligand/cholesterol-complex. Inside the cell, the vesicle rapidly loses its clathrin coat. Vesicles containing receptor bound ligands undergo further changes. Protons are actively imported into the vesicle leading to a drop in pH from the physiological values of 7 to about 5. Under these mildly acidic pH conditions, receptor and ligand dissociate. Receptors are then recycled back to the membrane with the aid of a sorting vesicle. The ligand/cholesterol-complexes stay within the vesicle and are transported towards the so-called lysosome, an even more acidic vesicle containing digestive enzymes. In the case of the ligand LDL, the ligand/cholesterol complex is digested inside the lysosome into amino acids, cholesterol and fatty acids.

Receptor mediated endocytosis may easily be exploited for DNA transfer into a cell, but, if DNA ends up in a lysozyme, it will be degraded. In order to succeed with gene transfer, the DNA needs to escape the endosome before it is digested by lysosomal nucleases. This is possible, as demonstrated by a number of infectious viruses, which use endocytosis for the efficient transfer of their genetic material into certain target cells. Such viruses have special capsid proteins that allow them to escape the early endosome. The signal for their escape is triggered by the drop in pH. As soon as the pH in the endosome starts to decrease, the capsid proteins undergo a conformational change that enables them to fuse with the membrane of the early endosome. The result is a disruption of the vesicle and the release of the virion into the cytoplasm. A synthetic peptide derived from the capsid of the hepatitis A virus has recently been shown to mimic this endosome escape induced by low pH. Another, less efficient, way to escape the lysosome consists in the utilization of lysosome blocking agents such as chloroquine or - even simpler - in an osmotic shock enforced by exposing the cells to nontoxic and nonionic compounds but osmotically active molecules such as glycerol and DMSO.