Cells can be transiently permeabilized by exposing them briefly to an intense electric field (a process called "electroporation"), but it is not clear what structural changes the electric field induces in the cell membrane. To determine whether membrane pores are actually created in the electropermeabilized cells, rapid-freezing electron microscopy was used to examine human red blood cells which were exposed to a radio-frequency electric field. Volcano-shaped membrane openings appeared in the freeze-fracture faces of electropermeabilized cell membranes at intervals as short as 3 ms after the electrical pulse. We suggest that these openings represent the membrane pathways which allow entry of macromolecules (such as DNA) during electroporation. The pore structures rapidly expand to 20–120 nm in diameter during the first 20 ms of electroporation, and after several seconds begin to shrink and reseal. The distribution of pore sizes and pore dynamics suggests that interactions between the membrane and the submembrane cytoskeleton may have an important role in the formation and resealing of pores. © 1990, The Biophysical Society. All rights reserved.
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