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1.  Recent Structural and Mechanistic Insights into Endplate Acetylcholine Receptors 
Voluntary movement mediated by skeletal muscle relies on endplate acetylcholine receptors (AChR) to detect nerve-released ACh and depolarize themuscle fiber. Recent structural and mechanistic studies of the endplate AChR have catalyzed a leap in our understanding of the molecular steps in this chemical-to-electrical transduction process. Studies of acetylcholine binding protein (AChBP) give insight into ACh recognition, the first step in activation of the AChR. An atomic structural model of the Torpedo AChR at a resolution of 0.4 nm, together with single-ion channel recording methods, allow tracing of the link between the agonist binding event and gating of the ion channel, as well as determination of how the channel moves when it opens to allow flow of cations. Structural models of the human AChR enable precise mapping of disease-causing mutations, while studies of the speed with which single AChR channels open and close cast light on pathogenic mechanisms.
PMCID: PMC3478106  PMID: 18567853
acetylcholine receptor; acetylcholine binding protein; agonist recognition; binding-gating coupling mechanism; congenital myasthenic syndrome
2.  Functional Relationships between Agonist Binding Sites and Coupling Regions of Homomeric Cys-Loop Receptors 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2011;31(10):3662-3669.
Each subunit in a homopentameric Cys-loop receptor contains a specialized coupling region positioned between the agonist binding domain and the ion conductive channel. To determine the contribution of each coupling region to the stability of the open channel, we constructed a receptor subunit (α7-5-HT3A) with both a disabled coupling region and a reporter mutation that alters unitary conductance, and coexpressed normal and mutant subunits. The resulting receptors show single-channel current amplitudes that are quantized according to the number of reporter mutations per receptor, allowing correlation of the number of intact coupling regions with mean open time. We find that each coupling region contributes an equal increment to the stability of the open channel. However, by altering the numbers and locations of active coupling regions and binding sites, we find that a coupling region in a subunit flanked by inactive binding sites can still stabilize the open channel. We also determine minimal requirements for channel opening regardless of stability and find that channel opening can occur in a receptor with one active coupling region flanked by functional binding sites or with one active binding site flanked by functional coupling regions. The overall findings show that, whereas the agonist binding sites contribute interdependently and asymmetrically to open-channel stability, the coupling regions contribute independently and symmetrically.
PMCID: PMC3907114  PMID: 21389221
3.  Detection and Trapping of Intermediate States Priming Nicotinic Receptor Channel Opening 
Nature  2009;459(7245):451-454.
In the course of synaptic transmission in the brain and periphery, acetylcholine receptors (AChRs) rapidly transduce a chemical signal into an electrical impulse. The speed of transduction owes in large part to rapid ACh association and dissociation, implying a binding site relatively non-selective for small cations; selective transduction has been supposed to originate from the ability of ACh, over that of other organic cations, to trigger the subsequent channel opening step. However transitions to and from the open state were shown to be similar for agonists with widely different efficacies.1,2,3 Here, by studying mutant AChRs, we find that the ultimate closed to open transition is agonist-independent and preceded by two primed closed states; the first primed state elicits brief openings, whereas the second elicits long-lived openings. Long-lived openings and the associated primed state are detected in the absence and presence of agonist, and exhibit the same kinetic signatures under both conditions. By covalently locking the agonist binding sites in the bound conformation, we find that each site initiates a priming step. Thus a change in binding site conformation primes the AChR for channel opening in a process that enables selective activation by ACh while maximizing speed and efficiency of the biological response.
PMCID: PMC2712348  PMID: 19339970
4.  Nicotinic Receptor Interloop Proline Anchors β1-β2 and Cys loops in Coupling Agonist Binding to Channel Gating 
The Journal of General Physiology  2008;132(2):265-278.
Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (AChRs) mediate rapid excitatory synaptic transmission throughout the peripheral and central nervous systems. They transduce binding of nerve-released ACh into opening of an intrinsic channel, yet the structural basis underlying transduction is not fully understood. Previous studies revealed a principal transduction pathway in which αArg 209 of the pre-M1 domain and αGlu 45 of the β1–β2 loop functionally link the two regions, positioning αVal 46 of the β1–β2 loop in a cavity formed by αPro 272 through αSer 269 of the M2–M3 loop. Here we investigate contributions of residues within and proximal to this pathway using single-channel kinetic analysis, site-directed mutagenesis, and thermodynamic mutant cycle analysis. We find that in contributing to channel gating, αVal 46 and αVal 132 of the signature Cys loop couple energetically to αPro 272. Furthermore, these residues are optimized in both their size and hydrophobicity to mediate rapid and efficient channel gating, suggesting naturally occurring substitutions at these positions enable a diverse range of gating rate constants among the Cys-loop receptor superfamily. The overall results indicate that αPro 272 functionally couples to flanking Val residues extending from the β1–β2 and Cys loops within the ACh binding to channel opening transduction pathway.
PMCID: PMC2483337  PMID: 18663134
5.  The Interface between Extracellular and Transmembrane Domains of Homomeric Cys-Loop Receptors Governs Open-Channel Lifetime and Rate of Desensitization 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2008;28(31):7808-7819.
The lifetimes of activated postsynaptic receptor channels contribute to the efficiency of synaptic transmission. Here we show that structural differences within the interface dividing extracellular and transmembrane domains of homomeric α7 and 5-HT3A receptors account for the large differences in open-channel lifetime and time of desensitization onset between these contrasting members of the Cys-loop receptor superfamily. For α7 receptors, agonist-evoked single-channel currents appear mainly as isolated brief openings (τo = 0.35 ms), whereas macroscopic currents after a step pulse of agonist desensitize rapidly (τd = 0.4 ms). In contrast for 5-HT3A receptors, agonist-evoked single-channel currents appear as clusters of many long openings in quick succession (τcluster = 1.2 s), whereas macroscopic currents desensitize slowly (τd = 1.1 s). A chimeric α7-5HT3A receptor exhibits functional properties intermediate between those of the parent receptors, but the functional signatures of each parent are reconstituted after substituting the major loops within the interface of the extracellular and transmembrane domains from the corresponding parent receptor. Furthermore, these structural loops contribute to open-channel lifetime and time of desensitization onset in a nonadditive manner. The results suggest that desensitization is the major determinant of the lifetimes of activated α7 and 5-HT3A receptors and that functional differences between the two receptors arise primarily through structural differences at the interface between extracellular and transmembrane domains.
PMCID: PMC3844810  PMID: 18667613
nicotinic receptor; Cys-loop receptor; patch-clamp; desensitization; ion channel; chimera
6.  Inter-residue coupling contributes to high-affinity subtype-selective binding of α-bungarotoxin to nicotinic receptors 
The Biochemical journal  2013;454(2):311-321.
The crystal structure of a pentameric α7 ligand-binding domain chimaera with bound α-btx (α-bungarotoxin) showed that of the five conserved aromatic residues in α7, only Tyr184 in loop C of the ligand-binding site was required for high-affinity binding. To determine whether the contribution of Tyr184 depends on local residues, we generated mutations in an α7/5HT3A (5-hydroxytryptamine type 3A) receptor chimaera, individually and in pairs, and measured 125I-labelled α-btx binding. The results show that mutations of individual residues near Tyr184 do not affect α-btx affinity, but pairwise mutations decrease affinity in an energetically coupled manner. Kinetic measurements show that the affinity decreases arise through increases in the α-btx dissociation rate with little change in the association rate. Replacing loop C in α7 with loop C from the α-btx-insensitive α2 or α3 subunits abolishes high-affinity α-btx binding, but preserves acetylcholine-elicited single channel currents. However, in both the α2 and α3 construct, mutating either residue that flanks Tyr184 to its α7 counterpart restores high-affinity α-btx binding. Analogously, in α7, mutating both residues that flank Tyr184 to the α2 or α3 counterparts abolishes high-affinity α-btx binding. Thus interaction between Tyr184 and local residues contributes to high-affinity subtype-selective α-btx binding.
PMCID: PMC3912756  PMID: 23802200
crystal structure; inter-residue coupling; molecular recognition; neurotoxin; nicotinic acetylcholine receptor
7.  Complex between α-bungarotoxin and an α7 nicotinic receptor ligand-binding domain chimaera 
The Biochemical journal  2013;454(2):303-310.
To identify high-affinity interactions between long-chain α-neurotoxins and nicotinic receptors, we determined the crystal structure of the complex between α-btx (α-bungarotoxin) and a pentameric ligand-binding domain constructed from the human α7 AChR (acetylcholine receptor) and AChBP (acetylcholine-binding protein). The complex buries ~2000 Å2 (1 Å = 0.1 nm) of surface area, within which Arg36 and Phe32 from finger II of α-btx form a π-cation stack that aligns edge-to-face with the conserved Tyr184 from loop-C of α7, while Asp30 of α-btx forms a hydrogen bond with the hydroxy group of Tyr184. These inter-residue interactions diverge from those in a 4.2 Å structure of α-ctx (α-cobratoxin) bound to AChBP, but are similar to those in a 1.94 Å structure of α-btx bound to the monomeric α1 extracellular domain, although compared with the monomer-bound complex, the α-btx backbone exhibits a large shift relative to the protein surface. Mutational analyses show that replacing Tyr184 with a threonine residue abolishes high-affinity α-btx binding, whereas replacing with a phenylalanine residue maintains high affinity. Comparison of the α-btx complex with that coupled to the agonist epibatidine reveals structural rearrangements within the binding pocket and throughout each subunit. The overall findings high-light structural principles by which α-neurotoxins interact with nicotinic receptors.
PMCID: PMC3920732  PMID: 23800261
crystal structure; molecular recognition; neurotoxin; nicotinic acetylcholine receptor
8.  Functional Relationships Between Agonist Binding Sites and Coupling Regions of Homomeric Cys-loop Receptors 
Each subunit in a homo-pentameric Cys-loop receptor contains a specialized coupling region positioned between the agonist binding domain and the ion conductive channel. To determine the contribution of each coupling region to the stability of the open channel, we constructed a receptor subunit (α7-5HT3A) with both a disabled coupling region and a reporter mutation that alters unitary conductance, and co-expressed normal and mutant subunits. The resulting receptors show single channel current amplitudes that are quantized according to the number of reporter mutations per receptor, allowing correlation of the number of intact coupling regions with mean open time. We find that each coupling region contributes an equal increment to the stability of the open channel. However by altering the numbers and locations of active coupling regions and binding sites, we find that a coupling region in a subunit flanked by inactive binding sites can still stabilize the open channel. We also determine minimal requirements for channel opening regardless of stability, and find that channel opening can occur in a receptor with one active coupling region flanked by functional binding sites, or with one active binding site flanked by functional coupling regions. The overall findings show that whereas the agonist binding sites contribute inter-dependently and asymmetrically to open channel stability, the coupling regions contribute independently and symmetrically.
PMCID: PMC3907114  PMID: 21389221
nicotinic receptor; Cys-loop receptor; patch-clamp; channel lifetime
9.  Initial Coupling of Binding to Gating Mediated by Conserved Residues in the Muscle Nicotinic Receptor 
We examined functional consequences of intrasubunit contacts in the nicotinic receptor α subunit using single channel kinetic analysis, site-directed mutagenesis, and structural modeling. At the periphery of the ACh binding site, our structural model shows that side chains of the conserved residues αK145, αD200, and αY190 converge to form putative electrostatic interactions. Structurally conservative mutations of each residue profoundly impair gating of the receptor channel, primarily by slowing the rate of channel opening. The combined mutations αD200N and αK145Q impair channel gating to the same extent as either single mutation, while αK145E counteracts the impaired gating due to αD200K, further suggesting electrostatic interaction between these residues. Interpreted in light of the crystal structure of acetylcholine binding protein (AChBP) with bound carbamylcholine (CCh), the results suggest in the absence of ACh, αK145 and αD200 form a salt bridge associated with the closed state of the channel. When ACh binds, αY190 moves toward the center of the binding cleft to stabilize the agonist, and its aromatic hydroxyl group approaches αK145, which in turn loosens its contact with αD200. The positional changes of αK145 and αD200 are proposed to initiate the cascade of perturbations that opens the receptor channel: the first perturbation is of β-strand 7, which harbors αK145 and is part of the signature Cys-loop, and the second is of β-strand 10, which harbors αD200 and connects to the M1 domain. Thus, interplay between these three conserved residues relays the initial conformational change from the ACh binding site toward the ion channel.
PMCID: PMC2266616  PMID: 15955875
10.  Invariant Aspartic Acid in Muscle Nicotinic Receptor Contributes Selectively to the Kinetics of Agonist Binding 
The Journal of General Physiology  2004;124(5):555-567.
We examined functional contributions of interdomain contacts within the nicotinic receptor ligand binding site using single channel kinetic analyses, site-directed mutagenesis, and a homology model of the major extracellular region. At the principal face of the binding site, the invariant αD89 forms a highly conserved interdomain contact near αT148, αW149, and αT150. Patch-clamp recordings show that the mutation αD89N markedly slows acetylcholine (ACh) binding to receptors in the resting closed state, but does not affect rates of channel opening and closing. Neither αT148L, αT150A, nor mutations at both positions substantially affects the kinetics of receptor activation, showing that hydroxyl side chains at these positions are not hydrogen bond donors for the strong acceptor αD89. However substituting a negative charge at αT148, but not at αT150, counteracts the effect of αD89N, demonstrating that a negative charge in the region of interdomain contact confers rapid association of ACh. Interpreted within the structural framework of ACh binding protein and a homology model of the receptor ligand binding site, these results implicate main chain amide groups in the domain harboring αW149 as principal hydrogen bond donors for αD89. The specific effect of αD89N on ACh association suggests that interdomain hydrogen bonding positions αW149 for optimal interaction with ACh.
PMCID: PMC2234004  PMID: 15504901
acetylcholine receptor; ligand binding site; single channel kinetics; hydrogen bond; structural model
11.  Mutation in the M1 Domain of the Acetylcholine Receptor α Subunit Decreases the Rate of Agonist Dissociation  
The Journal of General Physiology  1997;109(6):757-766.
We describe the kinetic consequences of the mutation N217K in the M1 domain of the acetylcholine receptor (AChR) α subunit that causes a slow channel congenital myasthenic syndrome (SCCMS). We previously showed that receptors containing αN217K expressed in 293 HEK cells open in prolonged activation episodes strikingly similar to those observed at the SCCMS end plates. Here we use single channel kinetic analysis to show that the prolonged activation episodes result primarily from slowing of the rate of acetylcholine (ACh) dissociation from the binding site. Rate constants for channel opening and closing are also slowed but to much smaller extents. The rate constants derived from kinetic analysis also describe the concentration dependence of receptor activation, revealing a 20-fold shift in the EC50 to lower agonist concentrations for αN217K. The apparent affinity of ACh binding, measured by competition against the rate of 125I-α-bungarotoxin binding, is also enhanced 20-fold by αN217K. Both the slowing of ACh dissociation and enhanced apparent affinity are specific to the lysine substitution, as the glutamine and glutamate substitutions have no effect. Substituting lysine for the equivalent asparagine in the β, ε, or δ subunits does not affect the kinetics of receptor activation or apparent agonist affinity. The results show that a mutation in the amino-terminal portion of the M1 domain produces a localized perturbation that stabilizes agonist bound to the resting state of the AChR.
PMCID: PMC2217038  PMID: 9222901
single channel kinetics; acetylcholine binding site
12.  Ligand-binding domain of an α7-nicotinic receptor chimera and its complex with agonist 
Nature neuroscience  2011;14(10):1253-1259.
The α7 acetylcholine receptor (AChR) mediates pre- and postsynaptic neurotransmission in the central nervous system and is a potential therapeutic target in neurodegenerative, neuropsychiatric and inflammatory disorders. We determined the crystal structure of the extracellular domain of a receptor chimera constructed from the human α7 AChR and Lymnaea stagnalis acetylcholine binding protein (AChBP), which shares 64% sequence identity and 71% similarity with native α7. We also determined the structure with bound epibatidine, a potent AChR agonist. Comparison of the structures revealed molecular rearrangements and interactions that mediate agonist recognition and early steps in signal transduction in α7 AChRs. The structures further revealed a ring of negative charge within the central vestibule, poised to contribute to cation selectivity. Structure-guided mutational studies disclosed distinctive contributions to agonist recognition and signal transduction in α7 AChRs. The structures provide a realistic template for structure-aided drug design and for defining structure–function relationships of α7 AChRs.
PMCID: PMC3489043  PMID: 21909087
Physiological reviews  2012;92(3):1189-1234.
The synapse is a localized neurohumoral contact between a neuron and an effector cell and may be considered the quantum of fast intercellular communication. Analogously, the postsynaptic neurotransmitter receptor may be considered the quantum of fast chemical to electrical transduction. Our understanding of postsynaptic receptors began to develop about a hundred years ago with the demonstration that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve released acetylcholine and slowed the heart beat. During the past 50 years, advances in understanding postsynaptic receptors increased at a rapid pace, owing largely to studies of the acetylcholine receptor (AChR) at the motor endplate. The endplate AChR belongs to a large superfamily of neurotransmitter receptors, called Cys-loop receptors, and has served as an exemplar receptor for probing fundamental structures and mechanisms that underlie fast synaptic transmission in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Recent studies provide an increasingly detailed picture of the structure of the AChR and the symphony of molecular motions that underpin its remarkably fast and efficient chemoelectrical transduction.
PMCID: PMC3489064  PMID: 22811427
14.  Further Observations in Congenital Myasthenic Syndromes 
During the past five years many patients suffering from congenital myasthenic syndromes (CMS) have been identified worldwide and novel causative genes and mutations have been discovered. The disease genes now include those encoding each subunit of the acetylcholine receptor (AChR), the ColQ part of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), choline acetyltransferase, Nav 1.4, MuSK, and Dok-7. Moreover, emerging genotype-phenotype correlations are providing clues for targeted mutation analysis. This review focuses on the recent observations in selected CMS.
PMCID: PMC3478107  PMID: 18567859
congenital myasthenic syndromes; acetylcholinesterase; choline acetyltransferase; acetylcholine receptor; Dok-7
15.  Myasthenic syndrome AChRα C-loop mutant disrupts initiation of channel gating 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2012;122(7):2613-2621.
Congenital myasthenic syndromes (CMSs) are neuromuscular disorders that can be caused by defects in ace­tylcholine receptor (AChR) function. Disease-associated point mutants can reveal the unsuspected functional significance of mutated residues. We identified two pathogenic mutations in the extracellular domain of the AChR α subunit (AChRα) in a patient with myasthenic symptoms since birth: a V188M mutation in the C-loop and a heteroallelic G74C mutation in the main immunogenic region. The G74C mutation markedly reduced surface AChR expression in cultured cells, whereas the V188M mutant was expressed robustly but had severely impaired kinetics. Single-channel patch-clamp analysis indicated that V188M markedly decreased the apparent AChR channel opening rate and gating efficiency. Mutant cycle analysis of energetic coupling among conserved residues within or dispersed around the AChRα C-loop revealed that V188 is functionally linked to Y190 in the C-loop and to D200 in β-strand 10, which connects to the M1 transmembrane domain. Furthermore, V188M weakens inter-residue coupling of K145 in β-strand 7 with Y190 and with D200. Cumulatively, these results indicate that V188 of AChRα is part of an interdependent tetrad that contributes to rearrangement of the C-loop during the initial coupling of agonist binding to channel gating.
PMCID: PMC3386830  PMID: 22728938
16.  Single-channel and structural foundations of neuronal α7 acetylcholine receptor potentiation 
Potentiation of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors by exogenous ligands is a promising strategy for treatment of neurological disorders including Alzheimer's disease and Schizophrenia. To gain insight into molecular mechanisms underlying potentiation, we examined ACh-induced single-channel currents through the human neuronal α7 acetylcholine receptor in the presence of the α7-specific potentiator PNU-120596 (PNU). Compared to the unusually brief single-channel opening episodes elicited by agonist alone, channel opening episodes in the presence of agonist and PNU are dramatically prolonged. Dwell time analysis reveals that PNU introduces two novel components into open-time histograms, indicating at least two degrees of PNU-induced potentiation. Openings of the longest potentiated class coalesce into clusters whose frequency and duration change over a narrow range of PNU concentration. At PNU concentrations approaching saturation, these clusters last up to several minutes, prolonging the sub-millisecond α7 opening episodes by several orders of magnitude. Mutations known to reduce PNU potentiation at the whole-cell level still give rise to multi-second long single-channel clusters. However mutation of five residues lining a cavity within each subunit's transmembrane domain abolishes PNU potentiation, defining minimal structural determinants of PNU potentiation.
PMCID: PMC3226716  PMID: 21957249
17.  Curariform Antagonists Bind in Different Orientations to Acetylcholine-binding Protein* 
The Journal of biological chemistry  2003;278(25):23020-23026.
Acetylcholine-binding protein (AChBP) recently emerged as a prototype for relating structure to function of the ligand binding domain of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (AChRs). To understand interactions of competitive antagonists at the atomic structural level, we studied binding of the curare derivatives d-tubocurarine (d-TC) and metocurine to AChBP using computational methods, mutagenesis, and ligand binding measurements. To account for protein flexibility, we used a 2-ns molecular dynamics simulation of AChBP to generate multiple snapshots of the equilibrated dynamic structure to which optimal docking orientations were determined. Our results predict a predominant docking orientation for both d-TC and metocurine, but unexpectedly, the bound orientations differ fundamentally for each ligand. At one subunit interface of AChBP, the side chain of Tyr-89 closely approaches a positively charged nitrogen in d-TC but is farther away from the equivalent nitrogen in metocurine, whereas, at the opposing interface, side chains of Trp-53 and Gln-55 closely approach the metocurine scaffold but not that of d-TC. The different orientations correspond to ~170° rotation and ~30° degree tilt of the curare scaffold within the binding pocket. Mutagenesis of binding site residues in AChBP, combined with measurements of ligand binding, confirms the different docking orientations. Thus structurally similar ligands can adopt distinct orientations at receptor binding sites, posing challenges for interpreting structure-activity relationships for many drugs.
PMCID: PMC3191914  PMID: 12682067
18.  What Have We Learned from the Congenital Myasthenic Syndromes 
The congenital myasthenic syndromes have now been traced to an array of molecular targets at the neuromuscular junction encoded by no fewer than 11 disease genes. The disease genes were identified by the candidate gene approach, using clues derived from clinical, electrophysiological, cytochemical, and ultrastructural features. For example, electrophysiologic studies in patients suffering from sudden episodes of apnea pointed to a defect in acetylcholine resynthesis and CHAT as the candidate gene (Ohno et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 98:2017–2022–2001); refractoriness to anticholinesterase medications and partial or complete absence of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) from the endplates (EPs) has pointed to one of the two genes (COLQ and ACHET) encoding AChE, though mutations were observed only in COLQ. After a series of patients carrying mutations in a disease gene have been identified, the emerging genotype–phenotype correlations provided clues for targeted mutation analysis in other patients. Mutations in EP-specific proteins also prompted expression studies that proved pathogenicity, highlighted important functional domains of the abnormal proteins, and pointed to rational therapy.
PMCID: PMC3050586  PMID: 19688192
Congenital myasthenic syndromes; Acetylcholine esterase; Choline acetyltransferase; Acetylcholine receptor; Dok-7
19.  On the Origin of Ion Selectivity in the Cys-Loop Receptor Family 
Agonist binding to Cys-loop receptors promotes a large transmembrane ion flux of several million cations or anions per second. To investigate structural bases for the rapid and charge-selective flux, we used all atom molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, X-ray crystallography, and single channel recording. MD simulations of the muscle nicotinic receptor, imbedded in a lipid bilayer with an applied transmembrane potential, reveal single cation translocation events during transient periods of channel hydration. During the simulation trajectory, cations paused for prolonged periods near several rings of anionic residues projecting from the lumen of the extracellular domain of the receptor, but subsequently the cation moved rapidly through the hydrophobic transmembrane region as the constituent alpha-helices exhibited back and forth rocking motions. Cocrystallization of acetylcholine binding protein with sulfate ions revealed coordination of five sulfates with residues from one of these charged rings; in cation-selective Cys-loop receptors this ring contains negatively charged residues, whereas in anion-selective receptors it contains positively charged residues. In the muscle nicotinic receptor, charge reversal of residues of this ring decreases unitary conductance by up to 80%. Thus in Cys-loop receptors, a series of charged rings along the ion translocation pathway concentrates hydrated ions relative to bulk solution, giving rise to charge selectivity, and then subtle motions of the hydrophobic transmembrane, coupled with transient periods of water filling, enable rapid ion flux.
PMCID: PMC3047408  PMID: 19728176
Cys-loop receptor family; Ion conductance and selectivity; Single channel recording; Acetylcholine binding protein; Molecular dynamics simulation
20.  Number and Locations of Agonist Binding Sites Required to Activate Homomeric Cys-Loop Receptors 
The Journal of Neuroscience  2009;29(18):6022-6032.
Homo-pentameric Cys-loop receptors contain five identical agonist binding sites, each formed at a subunit interface. To determine the number and locations of binding sites required to generate a stable active state, we constructed a receptor subunit with a mutation that disables the agonist binding site and a reporter mutation that alters unitary conductance and coexpressed mutant and nonmutant subunits. Although receptors with a range of different subunit compositions are produced, patch-clamp recordings reveal that the amplitude of each single-channel opening event reports the number and, for certain subunit combinations, the locations of subunits with intact binding sites. We find that receptors with three binding sites at nonconsecutive subunit interfaces exhibit maximal mean channel open time, receptors with binding sites at three consecutive or two nonconsecutive interfaces exhibit intermediate open time, and receptors with binding sites at two consecutive or one interface exhibit brief open time. Macroscopic recordings after rapid application of agonist reveal that channel activation slows and the extent of desensitization decreases as the number of binding sites per receptor decreases. The overall results provide a framework for defining mechanisms of activation and drug modulation for homo-pentameric Cys-loop receptors.
PMCID: PMC3849470  PMID: 19420269
21.  Binding to gating transduction in nicotinic receptors: Cys-loop energetically couples to pre-M1 and M2-M3 regions 
The nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR) transduces binding of nerve-released ACh into opening of an intrinsic ion channel, yet the intra-protein interactions behind transduction remain to be fully elucidated. Attention has focused on the region of the AChR where the β1-β2 and Cys-loops from the extracellular domain project into a cavity framed by residues preceding the first transmembrane domain (pre-M1) and the linker spanning transmembrane domains M2 and M3. Previous studies identified a principal transduction pathway in which the pre-M1 domain is coupled to the M2-M3 linker through the β1-β2 loop. Here we identify a parallel pathway in which the pre-M1 domain is coupled to the M2-M3 linker through the Cys-loop. Mutagenesis, single channel kinetic analyses and thermodynamic mutant cycle analyses reveal energetic coupling among αLeu 210 from the pre-M1 domain, αPhe 135 and αPhe 137 from the Cys-loop and αLeu 273 from the M2-M3 linker. Residues at equivalent positions of non-α-subunits show negligible coupling, indicating these inter-residue couplings are specific to residues in the α-subunit. Thus the extracellular β1-β2 and Cys-loops bridge the pre-M1 domain and M2-M3 linker to transduce agonist binding into channel gating.
PMCID: PMC2728446  PMID: 19279256
Cys-loop; binding to gating transduction; inter-residue coupling; Neural Excitability; Synapses; Glia: Cellular Mechanisms/2
22.  Morantel Allosterically Enhances Channel Gating of Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine α3β2 Receptors 
Molecular pharmacology  2008;74(2):466-475.
We studied allosteric potentiation of rat α3β2 neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) by the anthelmintic compound morantel. Macroscopic currents evoked by acetylcholine (ACh) from nAChRs expressed in Xenopus laevis oocytes increase up to 8-fold in the presence of low concentrations of morantel (≤10 μM); the magnitude of the potentiation depends on both agonist and modulator concentrations. It is noteworthy that the potentiated currents exceed the maximum currents achieved by saturating (millimolar) concentrations of agonist. Studies of macroscopic currents elicited by prolonged drug applications (100–300 s) indicate that morantel does not increase α3β2 receptor activity by reducing slow (≥1 s) desensitization. Instead, using outside-out patch-clamp recordings, we demonstrate that morantel increases the frequency of single-channel openings and alters the bursting characteristics of the openings in a manner consistent with enhanced channel gating; these results quantitatively explain the macroscopic current potentiation. Morantel is a very weak agonist alone, but we show that the classic competitive antagonist dihydro-β-erythroidine inhibits morantel-evoked currents noncompetitively, indicating that morantel does not bind to the canonical ACh binding sites.
PMCID: PMC2587017  PMID: 18458055
23.  Congenital myasthenia–related AChR δ subunit mutation interferes with intersubunit communication essential for channel gating 
The Journal of Clinical Investigation  2008;118(5):1867-1876.
Congenital myasthenias (CMs) arise from defects in neuromuscular junction–associated proteins. Deciphering the molecular bases of the CMs is required for therapy and illuminates structure-function relationships in these proteins. Here, we analyze the effects of a mutation in 1 of 4 homologous subunits in the AChR from a CM patient, a Leu to Pro mutation at position 42 of the δ subunit. The mutation is located in a region of contact between subunits required for rapid opening of the AChR channel and impedes the rate of channel opening. Substitutions of Gly, Lys, or Asp for δL42, or substitutions of Pro along the local protein chain, also slowed channel opening. Substitution of Pro for Leu in the ε subunit slowed opening, whereas this substitution had no effect in the β subunit and actually sped opening in the α subunit. Analyses of energetic coupling between residues at the subunit interface showed that δL42 is functionally linked to αT127, a key residue in the adjacent α subunit required for rapid channel opening. Thus, δL42 is part of an intersubunit network that enables ACh binding to rapidly open the AChR channel, which may be compromised in patients with CM.
PMCID: PMC2289798  PMID: 18398509
24.  Control of Cation Permeation through the Nicotinic Receptor Channel 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(2):e41.
We used molecular dynamics (MD) simulations to explore the transport of single cations through the channel of the muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR). Four MD simulations of 16 ns were performed at physiological and hyperpolarized membrane potentials, with and without restraints of the structure, but all without bound agonist. With the structure unrestrained and a potential of −100 mV, one cation traversed the channel during a transient period of channel hydration; at −200 mV, the channel was continuously hydrated and two cations traversed the channel. With the structure restrained, however, cations did not traverse the channel at either membrane potential, even though the channel was continuously hydrated. The overall results show that cation selective transport through the nAChR channel is governed by electrostatic interactions to achieve charge selectivity, but ion translocation relies on channel hydration, facilitated by a trans-membrane field, coupled with dynamic fluctuations of the channel structure.
Author Summary
Communication between a cell and its environment relies on channel-forming proteins to provide a low energy pathway for ions to move in and out. Although channel-forming proteins are essential to all life forms, the atomic-scale mechanisms that enable ions to pass through the channel remain elusive due to the lack of experimental approaches to monitor the protein and ion in real time and at atomic resolution. A powerful alternative approach is molecular dynamics (MD) simulation based on the laws of physics applied to the increasing body of protein structures resolved at atomic resolution. Here we present all-atom MD simulations applied to the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) that initiates voluntary movement in skeletal muscle. By focusing on individual permeant cations, we find that selective cation translocation occurs in stages: cations are first selected through a series of oppositely charged residues within the protein vestibule leading to a narrow hydrophobic constriction, but then hydration of the narrow region and dynamic fluctuations of the protein enable the cation to pass through. The findings provide a general framework for understanding how ions are selected for transport based on charge, and how the dynamic interplay between water, the ion, and the channel protein enable rapid ion translocation through the broad class of channel-forming proteins with hydrophobic barriers.
PMCID: PMC2242826  PMID: 18282090
25.  Targeted Molecular Dynamics Study of C-Loop Closure and Channel Gating in Nicotinic Receptors 
PLoS Computational Biology  2006;2(9):e134.
The initial coupling between ligand binding and channel gating in the human α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) has been investigated with targeted molecular dynamics (TMD) simulation. During the simulation, eight residues at the tip of the C-loop in two alternating subunits were forced to move toward a ligand-bound conformation as captured in the crystallographic structure of acetylcholine binding protein (AChBP) in complex with carbamoylcholine. Comparison of apo- and ligand-bound AChBP structures shows only minor rearrangements distal from the ligand-binding site. In contrast, comparison of apo and TMD simulation structures of the nAChR reveals significant changes toward the bottom of the ligand-binding domain. These structural rearrangements are subsequently translated to the pore domain, leading to a partly open channel within 4 ns of TMD simulation. Furthermore, we confirmed that two highly conserved residue pairs, one located near the ligand-binding pocket (Lys145 and Tyr188), and the other located toward the bottom of the ligand-binding domain (Arg206 and Glu45), are likely to play important roles in coupling agonist binding to channel gating. Overall, our simulations suggest that gating movements of the α7 receptor may involve relatively small structural changes within the ligand-binding domain, implying that the gating transition is energy-efficient and can be easily modulated by agonist binding/unbinding.
Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are ligand-gated ion channels responsible for neurotransmitter-mediated signal transduction at synapses throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems. Binding of neurotransmitter molecules to subunit interfaces in the N-terminal extracellular domain induces structural rearrangements of the membrane-spanning domain permitting the influx of cations. A full understanding of how the conformational changes propagate from the ligand-binding site to the pore domain is of great interest to biologists, yet remains to be established. Using a special simulation technique known as targeted molecular dynamics, Cheng and colleagues probed the early stages of ligand-induced conformational rearrangements that may lead to channel opening. During the simulation, Cheng et al. observed a sequence of conformational changes that stem from the ligand-binding site to the transmembrane domain resulting in a wider channel. From these results, they suggest that gating movements may entail only small structural changes in the ligand-binding domain, implying that channel gating is energy-efficient and can readily be modulated by the binding/unbinding of agonist molecules.
PMCID: PMC1584325  PMID: 17009865

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