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Functional consequences of sphingomyelinase-induced changes in erythrocyte membrane structure

Cell Death and Disease
Nature Publishing Group
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1038/cddis.2012.143
  • Original Article
  • Biology


Inflammation enhances the secretion of sphingomyelinases (SMases). SMases catalyze the hydrolysis of sphingomyelin into phosphocholine and ceramide. In erythrocytes, ceramide formation leads to exposure of the removal signal phosphatidylserine (PS), creating a potential link between SMase activity and anemia of inflammation. Therefore, we studied the effects of SMase on various pathophysiologically relevant parameters of erythrocyte homeostasis. Time-lapse confocal microscopy revealed a SMase-induced transition from the discoid to a spherical shape, followed by PS exposure, and finally loss of cytoplasmic content. Also, SMase treatment resulted in ceramide-associated alterations in membrane–cytoskeleton interactions and membrane organization, including microdomain formation. Furthermore, we observed increases in membrane fragility, vesiculation and invagination, and large protein clusters. These changes were associated with enhanced erythrocyte retention in a spleen-mimicking model. Erythrocyte storage under blood bank conditions and during physiological aging increased the sensitivity to SMase. A low SMase activity already induced morphological and structural changes, demonstrating the potential of SMase to disturb erythrocyte homeostasis. Our analyses provide a comprehensive picture in which ceramide-induced changes in membrane microdomain organization disrupt the membrane–cytoskeleton interaction and membrane integrity, leading to vesiculation, reduced deformability, and finally loss of erythrocyte content. Understanding these processes is highly relevant for understanding anemia during chronic inflammation, especially in critically ill patients receiving blood transfusions.

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