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Measurement of membrane potentials (ψ) of erythrocytes and white adipocytes by the accumulation of triphenylmethylphosphonium cation


The accumulation of the lipophilic cation, triphenylmethylphosphonium, has been employed to determine the resting membrane potential in human erythrocytes, turkey erythrocytes, and rat white adipocytes. The triphenylmethylphosphonium cation equilibrates rapidly in human erythrocytes in the presence of low concentrations of the hydrophobic anion, tetraphenylborate. Tetraphenylborate does not accelerate the uptake of triphenylmethylphosphonium ion by adipocytes. The cell associatedvs. extracellular distribution of the triphenylmethylphosphonium ion is proportional to changes in membrane potential. The distribution of this ion reflects the membrane potential determining concentration of the ion with dominant permeability in a “Nernst” fashion. The resting membrane potentials for the human erythrocyte, turkey erythrocyte, and rat white adipocyte were found to be −8.4±1.3, −16.8±1.1, and −58.3±5.0 mV, respectively, values which compare favorably with values obtained by other methods. In addition, changes in membrane potential can be assessed by following triphenylmethylphosphonium uptake without determining the intracellular water space. The method has been successfully applied to a study of hormonally induced changes in membrane potential of rat white adipocytes.

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Correspondence to Martin Sonenberg.

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Cheng, K., Haspel, H.C., Vallano, M.L. et al. Measurement of membrane potentials (ψ) of erythrocytes and white adipocytes by the accumulation of triphenylmethylphosphonium cation. J. Membrain Biol. 56, 191–201 (1980).

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  • Membrane Potential
  • Human Physiology
  • Human Erythrocyte
  • Rest Membrane Potential
  • Intracellular Water