Molecular and Biophysical Bases of Intracellular Electric Fields in Pollen Tubes

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Pollen tubes are the male gametophyte of flowering plants. They are arguably one of the fastest-growing cells in nature and inherently an excellent model for studying cellular processes like apical growth, polarity, and chemotropism. Pollen tube development is associated with a unique choreography of ion fluxes and cytosolic ion gradients of Cl-, Ca2+, H+, and K+, creating a unique electrochemical environment, where alternating depolarizing ionic currents at their growing apex are spatially separated from hyperpolarizing currents in their shank. We hypothesize that these electrical differences generated by the opposite ionic patterns could sustain a standing membrane potential gradient at the growing apex. In agreement with evidence from other cellular electrotaxis phenomena, we further hypothesize that a standing electric field gradient could be mechanistic in terms of cell polarity and chemotropism of pollen tubes.Here we show, for the first time, the existence of a standing membrane potential gradient in pollen tubes, confirmed in three different species, thus suggesting a conserved role in apical growth. This conclusion was achieved using three complementary methods, two membrane potential dyes with opposite fluorescence kinetics, and a genetic probe for cytosolic potassium (K+). The K+ gradient is focused at the pollen tube tip, and is compatible with previous information on the individual ion features. Of relevance, K+ shows a negative gradient from the tip, the first ever described in a living cell, suggestive of K+ apical efflux that contributes to the depolarized state. Quantifications of the fluorescent dyes estimate an apical depolarization of approximately 30mV compared to the shank. Screening of ion-channel mutants inducing male-fertility phenotypes supports the hypothesis that this bioelectric oddity is mechanistic for pollen tube’s critical functions, fast invasive growth and chemotropism. Furthermore, we determined that anionic lipids determine the emergence of the pollen tube and correlate with the apical depolarization area, suggesting that they may act as physical determinants of the growing apex. These results open important questions in our understanding of the bioelectrical processes determining cell growth, polarity, morphogenesis, and chemotropic reactions.