It is widely believed that most xenobiotics cross biomembranes by diffusing through the phospholipid bilayer, and that the use of protein transporters is an occasional adjunct. According to an alternative view, phospholipid bilayer transport is negligible, and several different transporters may be involved in the uptake of an individual molecular type. We recognise here that the availability of gene knockout collections allows one to assess the contributions of all potential transporters, and flow cytometry based on fluorescence provides a convenient high-throughput assay for xenobiotic uptake in individual cells.
We used high-throughput flow cytometry to assess the ability of individual gene knockout strains of E coli to take up two membrane-permeable, cationic fluorescent dyes, namely the carbocyanine diS-C3(5) and the DNA dye SYBR Green. Individual strains showed a large range of distributions of uptake. The range of modal steady-state uptakes for the carbocyanine between the different strains was 36-fold. Knockouts of the ATP synthase α- and β-subunits greatly inhibited uptake, implying that most uptake was ATP-driven rather than being driven by a membrane potential. Dozens of transporters changed the steady-state uptake of the dye by more than 50% with respect to that of the wild type, in either direction (increased or decreased); knockouts of known influx and efflux transporters behaved as expected, giving credence to the general strategy. Many of the knockouts with the most reduced uptake were transporter genes of unknown function (‘y-genes’). Similarly, several overexpression variants in the ‘ASKA’ collection had the anticipated, opposite effects. Similar results were obtained with SYBR Green (the range being approximately 69-fold). Although it too contains a benzothiazole motif there was negligible correlation between its uptake and that of the carbocyanine when compared across the various strains (although the membrane potential is presumably the same in each case).
Overall, we conclude that the uptake of these dyes may be catalysed by a great many transporters of putatively broad and presently unknown specificity, and that the very large range between the ‘lowest’ and the ‘highest’ levels of uptake, even in knockouts of just single genes, implies strongly that phospholipid bilayer transport is indeed negligible. This work also casts serious doubt upon the use of such dyes as quantitative stains for representing either bioenergetic parameters or the amount of cellular DNA in unfixed cells (in vivo) . By contrast, it opens up their potential use as transporter assay substrates in high-throughput screening.