Membrane rafts are transient and unstable membrane microdomains that are enriched in sphingolipids, cholesterol, and specific proteins. They are involved in intracellular trafficking, signal transduction, pathogen entry, and attachment of various ligands. Increasing experimental evidence
on the crucial biological roles of membrane rafts under normal and pathological conditions require new techniques for their structural and functional characterization. In particular, fluorescence-labeled cytolytic proteins that interact specifically with molecules enriched in rafts are of
increasing interest. Cholera toxin subunit B interacts specifically with raft-residing ganglioside GM1, and it has long been the lipid probe of choice for membrane rafts. Recently, four new pore-forming toxins have been proposed as selective raft markers: (i) equinatoxin II, a cytolysin from
the sea anemone Actinia equina, which specifically recognizes free and membrane-embedded sphingomyelin; (ii) a truncated non-toxic mutant of a cytolytic protein, lysenin, from the earthworm Eisenia foetida, which specifically recognizes sphingomyelin-enriched membrane domains; (iii) a non-toxic
derivative of the cholesteroldependent cytolysin perfringolysin O, from the bacterium Clostridium perfringens, which selectively binds to membrane domains enriched in cholesterol; and (iv) ostreolysin, from the mushroom Pleurotus ostreatus, which does not bind to a single raft-enriched lipid
component, but requires a specific combination of two of the most important raft-residing lipids: sphingomyelin and cholesterol. Nontoxic, raft-binding derivatives of cytolytic proteins have already been successfully used to explore both the structure and function of membrane rafts, and of
raft-associated molecules. Here, we review these four new derivatives of pore-forming toxins as new putative markers of these membrane microdomains.
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