Proteins other than TMC1 and TMC2 must contribute to the pore of the mechanotransducer channel of cochlear hair cells; an external vestibule subject to disruption in Tmc mutants may influence the channel’s properties.
Transmembrane channel–like (TMC) proteins TMC1 and TMC2 are crucial to the function of the mechanotransducer (MT) channel of inner ear hair cells, but their precise function has been controversial. To provide more insight, we characterized single MT channels in cochlear hair cells from wild-type mice and mice with mutations in Tmc1, Tmc2, or both. Channels were recorded in whole-cell mode after tip link destruction with BAPTA or after attenuating the MT current with GsMTx-4, a peptide toxin we found to block the channels with high affinity. In both cases, the MT channels in outer hair cells (OHCs) of wild-type mice displayed a tonotopic gradient in conductance, with channels from the cochlear base having a conductance (110 pS) nearly twice that of those at the apex (62 pS). This gradient was absent, with channels at both cochlear locations having similar small conductances, with two different Tmc1 mutations. The conductance of MT channels in inner hair cells was invariant with cochlear location but, as in OHCs, was reduced in either Tmc1 mutant. The gradient of OHC conductance also disappeared in Tmc1/Tmc2 double mutants, in which a mechanically sensitive current could be activated by anomalous negative displacements of the hair bundle. This “reversed stimulus–polarity” current was seen with two different Tmc1/Tmc2 double mutants, and with Tmc1/Tmc2/Tmc3 triple mutants, and had a pharmacological sensitivity comparable to that of native MT currents for most antagonists, except dihydrostreptomycin, for which the affinity was less, and for curare, which exhibited incomplete block. The existence in the Tmc1/Tmc2 double mutants of MT channels with most properties resembling those of wild-type channels indicates that proteins other than TMCs must be part of the channel pore. We suggest that an external vestibule of the MT channel may partly account for the channel’s large unitary conductance, high Ca2+ permeability, and pharmacological profile, and that this vestibule is disrupted in Tmc mutants.