Chemical Methods for Cell Disruption

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David Shechter
Jan 16, 2018
min read
Chemical Methods for Cell Disruption
cell disruption

Cell disruption is used throughout many industries, from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to food and biotechnology. As a method or process employed to release biological molecules or other materials from inside a cell, these industries commonly utilize it to study intercellular materials or use the materials located inside a given cell. It can be achieved through a range of methods and technologies, either mechanical or non-mechanical.

The method of cell disruption selected depends on the product, scale and cell type and must obtain the necessary components effectively and reliably without disturbing any of its components. Though high-pressure homogenization is the most common procedure for cell disruption, chemical methods including osmotic lysis, surfactants and chaotropic agents also are prevalent. In this blog, we’ll go into more detail on each of these methods.

Osmotic Lysis

In osmotic lysis (or shock), cells are suspended in a hypotonic extracellular environment, usually a dilute sucrose solution, causing them to take on water, swell and burst. It’s often applied to lyse mammalian blood cells and for RNA extraction, although it is sometimes used to disrupt microbial cells. Due to its low efficiency, however, it is one of the less commonly used chemical methods of cell disruption.


Surfactants (surface acting agents), often called detergents, are compounds that lower surface tension and disrupt the distinct interface between hydrophobic and hydrophilic systems. Their hydrophilic head and hydrophobic tail enable them to insert into and then disperse biological membranes. They are used at fairly low concentrations, and in order to disrupt bacterial cells, they must be used with lysozyme.

Detergents used for disrupting cells are divided three categories depending on their electrical charge: anionic, cationic and non-ionic. All three directly damage the cell wall or membrane, although the best detergents can lyse cells and solubilize proteins. Surfactant cell lysis may be used with ultrasonic processing in order to facilitate disruption.

Surfactants aren’t used for cell disruption more often because they denature proteins in the process and have different impacts on biological systems depending on which detergent is utilized and what its concentration is. No one detergent can be employed for all applications, and some of those selected may disturb downstream processing steps further in the process.

Chaotropic Agents

Chaotropic agents such as urea, guanidine and sodium iodide are capable of bringing some hydrophobic compounds into aqueous solutions by disrupting the structure of water, making it a less hydrophilic environment, and weakening the hydrophobic interactions among solute molecules. Used in very high concentrations, they are like surfactants because they break non-covalent interactions. Unlike surfactants, though, chaotropic agents disrupt the weak interactions between molecules and are sometimes used with detergents to denature and emulsify biological systems.

These techniques are usually only viable at laboratory scale due to increased consumption of energy, chemicals and water and can be very costly for use in large-scale manufacturing. Conditions during the chemical disruption process aren’t always uniform among samples, making it a risky proposition. In addition, some components may cause the denaturation of protein, resulting in a damaged end product.

High-pressure Homogenization

In high-pressure homogenization, a cell disruption method most often used for soft, solid tissues, samples are forced through a narrow space while pressure is applied to them. As the temperature increases, so does the rate of cell disruption. Although they can be used for small batches, high-pressure homogenizers are scalable and can easily adapt to different sample sizes to accommodate increased demand. They not only provide a high level of disruption efficiency but also can be used for the recovery of recombinant proteins.

Pion - Meeting the need for cell disruption

At Pion, our high pressure homogenizing technology allows you to gently rupture cells without damaging their valuable intracellular materials. You can control the pressure, enabling rupture of a variety of cell types. No harsh chemicals are introduced into the process, and all results are 100 percent scalable to meet your manufacturing needs.

To learn more about cell disruption and how our line of high-pressure homogenizers can help you achieve your goals, please contact us today.

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