Break on through to the Other Side—Biophysics and Cell Biology Shed Light on Cell-Penetrating Peptides



Cell-penetrating peptides (CPPs) have become widely used vectors for the cellular import of molecules in basic and applied biomedical research. Despite the broad acceptance of these molecules as molecular carriers, the details of the mode of cellular internalization and membrane permeation remain elusive. Within the last two years endocytosis has been demonstrated to be a route of uptake shared by several CPPs. These findings had a significant impact on CPP research. State-of-the-art cell biology is now required to advance the understanding of the intracellular fate of the CPP and cargo molecules. Owing to their presumed ability to cross lipid bilayers, CPPs also represent highly interesting objects of biophysical research. Numerous studies have investigated structure–activity relationships of CPPs with respect to their ability to bind to a lipid bilayer or to cross this barrier. Endocytosis route only relocates the membrane permeation from the cell surface to endocytic compartments. Therefore, biophysical experiments are key to a mechanistic molecular understanding of the cellular uptake of CPPs. However, biophysical investigations have to consider the molecular environment encountered by a peptide inside and outside a cell. In this contribution we will review biophysical and cell-biology data obtained for several prominent CPPs. Furthermore, we will summarize recent findings on the cell-penetrating characteristics of antimicrobial peptides and the antimicrobial properties of CPPs. Peptides of both groups have overlapping characteristics. Therefore, both fields may greatly benefit from each other. The review will conclude with a perspective of how biophysics and cell biology may synergize even more efficiently in the future.