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Research Article

Inhibition of the Prokaryotic Pentameric Ligand-Gated Ion Channel ELIC by Divalent Cations


The prokaryotic pentameric ligand-gated ion channel ELIC is inhibited by divalent cations, which occupy a specific extracellular site and interfere with channel gating.The modulation of pentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) by divalent cations is believed to play an important role in their regulation in a physiological context. Ions such as calcium or zinc influence the activity of pLGIC neurotransmitter receptors by binding to their extracellular domain and either potentiate or inhibit channel activation. Here we have investigated by electrophysiology and X-ray crystallography the effect of divalent ions on ELIC, a close prokaryotic pLGIC homologue of known structure. We found that divalent cations inhibit the activation of ELIC by the agonist cysteamine, reducing both its potency and, at higher concentrations, its maximum response. Crystal structures of the channel in complex with barium reveal the presence of several distinct binding sites. By mutagenesis we confirmed that the site responsible for divalent inhibition is located at the outer rim of the extracellular domain, at the interface between adjacent subunits but at some distance from the agonist binding region. Here, divalent cations interact with the protein via carboxylate side-chains, and the site is similar in structure to calcium binding sites described in other proteins. There is evidence that other pLGICs may be regulated by divalent ions binding to a similar region, even though the interacting residues are not conserved within the family. Our study provides structural and functional insight into the allosteric regulation of ELIC and is of potential relevance for the entire family.Author SummaryPentameric ligand-gated ion channels (pLGICs) are ionotropic neurotransmitter receptors that mediate electrical signaling at chemical synapses. The pLGIC family includes receptors for acetylcholine, serotonin, GABA and glycine, which share a similar structural organization and activation mechanism: the channels are closed in the absence of ligands and open when neurotransmitters bind to a conserved site in the extracellular domain. In many family members, activation by the neurotransmitter can be affected by modulators (including several drugs in therapeutic use), which bind to different sites on the channel. Channel function can be modulated also by divalent cations, which either potentiate or inhibit pLGICs at physiological concentrations. Here, we analyze this mechanism in the pLGIC ELIC, a prokaryotic family member of known structure. We show that divalent cations such as calcium or zinc inhibit ELIC by occupying an extracellular site remote from the ligand-binding region thereby interfering with gating. Although the site of interaction is not conserved between different family members, we present evidence that regulation of other pLGICs involves the same region. Our study has thus provided insights into a regulatory process that appears to be general for the pLGIC family in both eukaryotes and prokaryotes.