Sensing the pressure

Piezo ion channels that sense mechanical force are randomly spread across the surface of cells and do not impact each other’s behaviors.

An artistic rendering of Piezo ion channels (pink) randomly distributed across the surface of a cell. Image credit: Michael Young (CC BY 4.0)

Cells can sense a range of mechanical forces both inside and outside the body, such as the stroke of a fingertip or the filling of a lung. Pores on the surface of the cell called Piezo channels open up in response to this pressure. This allows ions to flood in to the cell and trigger a series of biochemical reactions that alter the cell’s behavior.

Piezo channels have a unique bowl-like structure that transforms the shape of the cell surface around them, potentially affecting how nearby proteins behave. Previous research had suggested that these channels might be unevenly distributed across the cell surface, and were predicted to modify each other’s behaviors when tightly packed together. This cooperative response would have a significant impact on how cells sense mechanical force.

To investigate if this was the case, Lewis and Grandl studied a mouse cell called Neuro2A which naturally produces Piezo ion channels. In the experiment, pressure was applied to different parts of the cell and the electric current generated by ions moving across the surface was recorded: the higher the electrical activity, the more ion channels present. This showed that Piezo channels are randomly distributed across the cell surface and do not tend to cluster together. The same Neuro2A cells were then engineered to produce up to one hundred times more Piezo proteins. Despite the channels being more densely packed together, how they responded to mechanical force remained the same.

These results suggest that Piezo channels act independently and are not influenced by close proximity to one another. Lewis and Grandl propose that this property may ensure that all parts of the cell surface react to mechanical force in the same way. Further work is needed to see if this finding applies to other cell types that produce Piezo proteins.