Mechanosensitive ion channels are force-transducing enzymes that couple mechanical stimuli to ion flux. Understanding the gating mechanism of mechanosensitive channels is challenging because the stimulus seen by the channel reflects forces shared between the membrane, cytoskeleton and extracellular matrix. Here we examine whether the mechanosensitive channel PIEZO1 is activated by force-transmission through the bilayer. To achieve this, we generate HEK293 cell membrane blebs largely free of cytoskeleton. Using the bacterial channel MscL, we calibrate the bilayer tension demonstrating that activation of MscL in blebs is identical to that in reconstituted bilayers. Utilizing a novel PIEZO1–GFP fusion, we then show PIEZO1 is activated by bilayer tension in bleb membranes, gating at lower pressures indicative of removal of the cortical cytoskeleton and the mechanoprotection it provides. Thus, PIEZO1 channels must sense force directly transmitted through the bilayer.
PIEZO1 is a mechanosensitive ion channel, but the mechanism of force transduction is unknown. Here Cox and Bae et al. disrupt the cortical cytoskeleton in HEK293 cells to show that PIEZO1 is gated directly by membrane tension.