Mechanism of Polyplex- and Lipoplex-Mediated Delivery of Nucleic Acids: Real-Time Visualization of Transient Membrane Destabilization without Endosomal Lysis

Zia Ur Rehman, Dick Hoekstra, Inge S. Zuhorn*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

317 Citations (Scopus)


Lipoplexes and polyplexes are widely applied as nonviral gene delivery carriers. Although their efficiencies of transfection are comparable, their mechanisms of delivery, specifically at the level of nudeic acid release from endosomes, are different. Thus, lipoplex-mediated release is proposed to rely on lipid mixing, as occurs between lipoplex and endosomal target membrane, the ensuing membrane destabilization leading to nucleic add delivery into the cytosol. By contrast, the mechanism by which polyplexes, particularly those displaying a high proton buffering capacity, release their nucleic acid cargo from the endosome, is thought to rely on a so-called "proton sponge effect", in essence an osmotically induced rupturing of the endosomal membrane. However, although a wealth of Indirect insight supports both these mechanisms, direct evidence Is still lacking. Therefore, to further clarify these mechanisms, we have investigated the interaction of lipo- and polyplexes with Hela cells by live cell imaging. As monitored over an incubation period of 2 h, our data reveal that in contrast to the involvement of numerous nanocarriers in case of lipoplex-mediated delivery, only a very limited number of polyplexes, that is, as few as one up to four/five nanocarriers per cell, with an average of one/two per cell, contribute to the release of nudeic acids from endosomes and their subsequent accumulation into the nucleus. Notably, in neither case complete rupture of endosomes nor release of intact polyplexes or lipoplexes into the cytosol was observed. Rather, at the time of endosomal escape both the polymer and its genetic payload are separately squirted into the cytoplasm, presumably via (a) local pore(s) within the endosomal membrane. Specifically, an almost Instantaneous and complete discharge of nucleic acids and carrier (remnants) from the endosomes is observed. In case of lipoplexes, the data suggest the formation of multiple transient pores over time within the same endosomal membrane, via which the cargo is more gradually transferred into the cytosol.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3767-3777
Number of pages11
JournalAcs Nano
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May-2013


  • polyplexes
  • lipoplexes
  • endosomal escape
  • proton sponge effect
  • flip-flop mechanism
  • live cell imaging

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