• Open Access

Membrane fusion in cells: molecular machinery and mechanisms


  • M. Leabu

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, “Carol Davila” University of Medicine and Pharmacy, Bucharest, Romania Department of Cellular and Molecular Biology, “Victor Babes” National Institute of Pathology, Bucharest, Romania
    • Correspondence to: Mircea Leabu, PhD Chairman of Cell Biology Laboratory “Victor Babes” National Institute of Pathology, 99-191 Splaiul Independentei, Sector 5, 050096, Bucharest, Romania. E-mail: mleabu@univermed-cdgm.ro

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Membrane fusion is a sine qua non process for cell physiology. It is critical for membrane biogenesis, intracellular traffic, and cell secretion. Although investigated for over a century, only in the last 15 years, the molecular machinery and mechanism of membrane fusion has been deciphered. The membrane fusion event elicits essentially three actors on stage: anionic phospholipids - phosphatidylinositols, phosphatidyl serines, specific membrane proteins, and the calcium ions, all participating in a well orchestrated symphony. Three soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive factor (NSF)-attachment protein receptors (SNAREs) have been implicated in membrane fusion. Target membrane proteins, SNAP-25 and syntaxin (t-SNARE) and secretory vesicle-associated membrane protein (v-SNARE) or VAMP were discovered in the 1990's and suggested to be the minimal fusion machinery. Subsequently, the molecular mechanism of SNARE-induced membrane fusion was discovered. It was demonstrated that when t-SNARE-associated lipid membrane is exposed to v-SNARE-associated vesicles in the presence of Ca2+, the SNARE proteins interact in a circular array to form conducting channels, thus establishing continuity between the opposing bilayers. Further it was proved that SNAREs bring opposing bilayers close to within a distance of 2-3 Å, allowing Ca2+ to bridge them. The bridging of bilayers by Ca2+ then leads to the expulsion of water between the bilayers at the contact site, allowing lipid mixing and membrane fusion. Calcium bridging of opposing bilayers leads to the release of water, both from the water shell of hydrated Ca2+ ions, as well as the displacement of loosely coordinated water at the phosphate head groups in the lipid membrane. These discoveries provided for the first time, the molecular mechanism of SNARE-induced membrane fusion in cells. Some of the seminal discoveries are briefly discussed in this minireview.