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J Neurosci. 2000 Apr 1;20(7):2575-88.

In vivo structure-function analyses of Caenorhabditis elegans MEC-4, a candidate mechanosensory ion channel subunit.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854, USA.


Mechanosensory signaling mediated by mechanically gated ion channels constitutes the basis for the senses of touch and hearing and contributes fundamentally to the development and homeostasis of all organisms. Despite this profound importance in biology, little is known of the molecular identities or functional requirements of mechanically gated ion channels. We report a genetically based structure-function analysis of the candidate mechanotransducing channel subunit MEC-4, a core component of a touch-sensing complex in Caenorhabditis elegans and a member of the DEG/ENaC superfamily. We identify molecular lesions in 40 EMS-induced mec-4 alleles and further probe residue and domain function using site-directed approaches. Our analysis highlights residues and subdomains critical for MEC-4 activity and suggests possible roles of these in channel assembly and/or function. We describe a class of substitutions that disrupt normal channel activity in touch transduction but remain permissive for neurotoxic channel hyperactivation, and we show that expression of an N-terminal MEC-4 fragment interferes with in vivo channel function. These data advance working models for the MEC-4 mechanotransducing channel and identify residues, unique to MEC-4 or the MEC-4 degenerin subfamily, that might be specifically required for mechanotransducing function. Because many other substitutions identified by our study affect residues conserved within the DEG/ENaC channel superfamily, this work also provides a broad view of structure-function relations in the superfamily as a whole. Because the C. elegans genome encodes representatives of a large number of eukaryotic channel classes, we suggest that similar genetic-based structure-activity studies might be generally applied to generate insight into the in vivo function of diverse channel types.

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