Pulling membrane nanotubes from giant unilamellar vesicles


The reshaping of the cell membrane is an integral part of many cellular phenomena, such as endocytosis, trafficking, the formation of filopodia, etc. Many different proteins associate with curved membranes because of their ability to sense or induce membrane curvature. Typically, these processes involve a multitude of proteins making them too complex to study quantitatively in the cell. We describe a protocol to reconstitute a curved membrane in vitro, mimicking a curved cellular structure, such as the endocytic neck. A giant unilamellar vesicle (GUV) is used as a model of a cell membrane, whose internal pressure and surface tension are controlled with micropipette aspiration. Applying a point pulling force on the GUV using optical tweezers creates a nanotube of high curvature connected to a flat membrane. This method has traditionally been used to measure the fundamental mechanical properties of lipid membranes, such as bending rigidity. In recent years, it has been expanded to study how proteins interact with membrane curvature and the way they affect the shape and the mechanics of membranes. A system combining micromanipulation, microinjection, optical tweezers, and confocal microscopy allows measurement of membrane curvature, membrane tension, and the surface density of proteins, concurrently. From these measurements, many important mechanical and morphological properties of the protein-membrane system can be inferred. In addition, we lay out a protocol of creating GUVs in the presence of physiological salt concentration, and a method of quantifying the surface density of proteins on the membrane from fluorescence intensities of labeled proteins and lipids.

JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments)