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Berg JM, Tymoczko JL, Stryer L. Biochemistry. 5th edition. New York: W H Freeman; 2002.

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Biochemistry. 5th edition.

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Section 32.4Hearing Depends on the Speedy Detection of Mechanical Stimuli

Hearing and touch are based on the detection of mechanical stimuli. Although the proteins of these senses have not been as well characterized as those of the senses already discussed, anatomical, physiological, and biophysical studies have elucidated the fundamental processes. A major clue to the mechanism of hearing is its speed. We hear frequencies ranging from 200 to 20,000 Hz (cycles per second), corresponding to times of 5 to 0.05 ms. Furthermore, our ability to locate sound sources, one of the most important functions of hearing, depends on the ability to detect the time delay between the arrival of a sound at one ear and its arrival at the other. Given the separation of our ears and the speed of sound, we must be able to accurately sense time differences of 0.7 ms. In fact, human beings can locate sound sources associated with temporal delays as short as 0.02 ms. This high time resolution implies that hearing must employ direct transduction mechanisms that do not depend on second messengers. Recall that, in vision, for which speed also is important, the signal-transduction processes take place in milliseconds.

32.4.1. Hair Cells Use a Connected Bundle of Stereocilia to Detect Tiny Motions

Sound waves are detected inside the cochlea of the inner ear. The cochlea is a fluid-filled, membranous sac that is coiled like a snail shell. The primary detection is accomplished by specialized neurons inside the cochlea called hair cells (Figure 32.30). Each cochlea contains approximately 16,000 hair cells, and each hair cell contains a hexagonally shaped bundle of 20 to 300 hairlike projections called stereocilia (Figure 32.31). These stereocilia are graded in length across the bundle. Mechanical deflection of the hair bundle, as occurs when a sound wave arrives at the ear, creates a change in the membrane potential of the hair cell.

Figure 32.30. Hair Cells, the Sensory Neurons Crucial for Hearing.

Figure 32.30

Hair Cells, the Sensory Neurons Crucial for Hearing. [Adapted from Hudspeth, A. J. Nature 341(1989):397.]

Figure 32.31. An Electron Micrograph of a Hair Bundle.

Figure 32.31

An Electron Micrograph of a Hair Bundle. [Courtesy of A. Jacobs and A. J. Hudspeth.]

Micromanipulation experiments have directly probed the connection between mechanical stimulation and membrane potential. Displacement toward the direction of the tallest part of the hair bundle results in depolarization of the hair cell, whereas displacement in the opposite direction results in hyperpolarization (Figure 32.32). Motion perpendicular to the hair-length gradient does not produce any change in resting potential. Remarkably, displacement of the hair bundle by as little as 3 Å (0.3 nm) results in a measurable (and functionally important) change in membrane potential. This motion of 0.003 degree corresponds to a 1-inch movement of the top of the Empire State Building.

Figure 32.32. Micromanipulation of a Hair Cell.

Figure 32.32

Micromanipulation of a Hair Cell. Movement toward the tallest part of the bundle depolarizes the cell as measured by the microelectrode. Movement toward the shortest part hyperpolarizes the cell. Lateral movement has no effect. [Adapted from Hudspeth, (more...)

How does the motion of the hair bundle create a change in membrane potential? The rapid response, within microseconds, suggests that the movement of the hair bundle acts on ion channels directly. An important observation is that adjacent stereocilia are linked by individual filaments called tip links (Figure 32.33).

Figure 32.33. Electron Micrograph of Tip Links.

Figure 32.33

Electron Micrograph of Tip Links. The tip link between two hair fibers is marked by an arrow. [Courtesy of A. Jacobs and A. J. Hudspeth.]

The presence of these tip links suggests a simple mechanical model for transduction by hair cells (Figure 32.34). The tip links are coupled to ion channels in the membranes of the stereocilia that are gated by mechanical stress. In the absence of a stimulus, approximately 15% of these channels are open. When the hair bundle is displaced toward its tallest part, the stereocilia slide across one another and the tension on the tip links increases, causing additional channels to open. The flow of ions through the newly opened channels depolarizes the membrane. Conversely, if the displacement is in the opposite direction, the tension on the tip links decreases, the open channels close, and the membrane hyperpolarizes. Thus, the mechanical motion of the hair bundle is directly converted into current flow across the hair-cell membrane.

Figure 32.34. Model for Hair-Cell Transduction.

Figure 32.34

Model for Hair-Cell Transduction. When the hair bundle is tipped toward the tallest part, the tip link pulls on and opens an ion channel. Movement in the opposite direction relaxes the tension in the tip link, increasing the probability that any open (more...)

32.4.2. Mechanosensory Channels Have Been Identified in Drosophila and Bacteria

Although the ion channel that functions in human hearing has not been identified, other mechanosensory channels in other organisms have been. Drosophila have sensory bristles used for detecting small air currents. These bristles respond to mechanical displacement in ways similar to those of hair cells; displacement of a bristle in one direction leads to substantial transmembrane current. Strains of mutant fruit flies that show uncoordinated motion and clumsiness have been examined for their electrophysiological responses to displacement of the sensory bristles. In one set of strains, transmembrane currents were dramatically reduced. The mutated gene in these strains was found to encode a protein of 1619 amino acids, called NompC for no mechanoreceptor potential.

The carboxyl-terminal 469 amino acids of NompC resemble a class of ion channel proteins called TRP (transient receptor potential) channels. This region includes six putative transmembrane helices with a porelike region between the fifth and sixth helices. The amino-terminal 1150 amino acids consist almost exclusively of 29 ankyrin repeats (Figure 32.35). Ankyrin repeats are structural motifs formed by 33 amino acids folded into a hairpin loop followed by a helix-turn-helix. Importantly, in other proteins, regions with tandem arrays of these motifs mediate protein-protein interactions, suggesting that these arrays couple the motions of other proteins to the activity of the NompC channel.

Figure 32.35. Ankyrin Repeat Structure.

Figure 32.35

Ankyrin Repeat Structure. Image mouse.jpg Four ankyrin repeats are shown with one shown in red. These domains interact with other proteins, primarily through their loops.

Prokaryotes such as E. coli have ion channels in their membranes that open in response to mechanical changes. These channels play a role in regulating the osmotic pressure within the bacteria. The three-dimensional structure of one such channel, that from Mycobaterium tuberculosis, has been determined. The channel is constructed of five identical subunits arranged such that an alpha helix from each subunit lines the inner surface of the pore. Further studies should reveal whether the transduction channel in hearing is homologous to either of these clases of mechanosensory channels or represents a novel class.

By agreement with the publisher, this book is accessible by the search feature, but cannot be browsed.

Copyright © 2002, W. H. Freeman and Company.
Bookshelf ID: NBK22542


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