The mechanism responsible for electromotility of outer hair cells in the ear is unknown but is thought to reside within the plasma membrane. Lipid lateral diffusion in the outer hair cell plasma membrane is a sigmoidal function of transmembrane potential and bathing media osmolality. Cell depolarization or hyposmotic challenge shorten the cell and reduce membrane fluidity by half. Changing the membrane tension with amphipathic drugs results in similar reductions. These dynamic changes in membrane fluidity represent the modulation of membrane tension by lipid-protein interactions. The voltage dependence may be associated with the force-generating motors that contribute to the exquisite sensitivity of mammalian hearing.
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