We have investigated the mechanism of cell fusion mediated by HA, the fusogenic hemagglutinin of the Influenza viral envelope. Single erythrocytes (RBCs) were attached to fibroblasts expressing the HA on their cell surface, and fusion of the paired cells was triggered by rapid acidification. The RBC membrane was stained with fluorescent lipid, and the fusion-induced escape of lipid into the fibroblast was observed by quantitative image analysis. At the same time, the formation of an aqueous connection (i.e., the fusion pore) between the two cells was monitored electrically. Within minutes after acidification, an electrical conductance between the two cells appeared abruptly as the fusion pore opened, and then increased gradually as the pore dilated. Later, fluorescent lipid diffused into the fibroblast, approaching equilibrium over the next 5-20 min. No lipid flux was seen while the pore conductance remained 0.5 nS or less. Evidently lipid flux requires a threshold pore size. Our finding suggests that the smallest and earliest fusion pores are surrounded by a ring of protein. A fusion pore expands by breaking this ring and recruiting lipid into its circumference.

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