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The membrane peptide pH (low) insertion peptide (pHLIP) lives in three worlds, being soluble in aqueous solution at pH 7.4, binding to the surface of lipid bilayers, and inserting as a transbilayer helix at low pH. With low pH driving the process, pHLIP can translocate cargo molecules attached to its C-terminus via a disulfide and release them in the cytoplasm of a cell. Here we examine a key aspect of the mechanism, showing that pHLIP is monomeric in each of its three major states: soluble in water near neutral pH (state I), bound to the surface of a membrane near neutral pH (state II), and inserted across the membrane as an α-helix at low pH (state III). The peptide does not induce fusion or membrane leakage. The unique properties of pHLIP made it attractive for the biophysical investigation of membrane protein folding in vitro and for the development of a novel class of delivery peptides for the transport of therapeutic and diagnostic agents to acidic tissue sites associated with various pathological processes in vivo.

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© 2007 by the Biophysical Society