Imaging and manipulating phosphoinositides in living cells


  • This report was presented at The Journal of Physiology Symposium on Regulation of ion channels and transporters by phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate (PIP2), Baltimore, MD, USA, 2 March 2007. It was commissioned by the Editorial Board and reflects the views of the author.

Corresponding author T. Balla: National Institutes of Health, Bldg 49, Rm 6A36, 49 Convent Drive, Bethesda, MD 20892-4510, USA. Email:


Phosphoinositides are minor phospholipid constituents of virtually every biological membrane yet they play fundamental roles in controlling membrane-bound signalling events. Phosphoinositides are produced from phosphatidylinositol (PtdIns) by phosphorylation of one or more of three positions (3, 4 and 5) of the inositol headgroup located at the membrane cytoplasmic interface by distinct families of inositol lipid kinases. Intriguingly, many of the kinase reactions are catalysed by more than one form of the kinases even in simple organisms and these enzymes often assume non-redundant functions. A similar diversity is seen with inositide phosphatases, the enzymes that dephosphorylate phosphoinositides with a certain degree of specificity and the impairments of which are often linked to human diseases. This degree of multiplicity at the enzyme level together with the universal roles of these lipids in cell regulation assumes that inositol lipids are spatially and functionally restricted in specific membrane compartments. Studying the compartmentalized roles of these lipids at the cellular level represents a major methodological challenge. Over the last 10 years significant progress has been made in creating reagents that can monitor inositol lipid changes in live cells with fluorescence or confocal microscopy. New methods are also being developed to manipulate these lipids in specific membrane compartments in a regulated fashion. This article recalls some historical aspects of inositide research and describes the new methodological advances highlighting their great potential as well as the problems one can encounter with their use.