Pulsed electric fields are increasingly used in medicine to transiently increase the cell membrane permeability via electroporation, in order to deliver therapeutic molecules into the cell. One type of events that contributes to this increase in membrane permeability is the formation of pores in the membrane lipid bilayer. However, electrophysiological measurements suggest that membrane proteins are affected as well, particularly voltage-gated ion channels (VGICs). The molecular mechanisms by which the electric field could affects these molecules remain unidentified. In this study we used molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to unravel the molecular events that take place in different VGICs when exposing them to electric fields mimicking electroporation conditions. We show that electric fields induce pores in the voltage-sensor domains (VSDs) of different VGICs, and that these pores form more easily in some channels than in others. We demonstrate that poration is more likely in VSDs that are more hydrated and are electrostatically more favorable for the entry of ions. We further show that pores in VSDs can expand into so-called complex pores, which become stabilized by lipid head-groups. Our results suggest that such complex pores are considerably more stable than conventional lipid pores and their formation can lead to severe unfolding of VSDs from the channel. We anticipate that such VSDs become dysfunctional and unable to respond to changes in transmembrane voltage, which is in agreement with previous electrophyiological measurements showing a decrease in the voltage-dependent transmembrane ionic currents following pulse treatment. Finally, we discuss the possibility of activation of VGICs by submicrosecond-duration pulses. Overall our study reveals a new mechanism of electroporation through membranes containing voltage-gated ion channels.
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