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J Gen Physiol. 2012 Jul;140(1):17-28. doi: 10.1085/jgp.201210801.

An integrated catch-and-hold mechanism activates nicotinic acetylcholine receptors.

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  • 1Department of Physiology and Biophysics, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY 14214, USA.


In neuromuscular acetylcholine (ACh) receptor channels (AChRs), agonist molecules bind with a low affinity (LA) to two sites that can switch to high affinity (HA) and increase the probability of channel opening. We measured (by using single-channel kinetic analysis) the rate and equilibrium constants for LA binding and channel gating for several different agonists of adult-type mouse AChRs. Almost all of the variation in the equilibrium constants for LA binding was from differences in the association rate constants. These were consistently below the limit set by diffusion and were substantially different even though the agonists had similar sizes and the same charge. This suggests that binding to resting receptors is not by diffusion alone and, hence, that each binding site can undergo two conformational changes ("catch" and "hold") that connect three different structures (apo-, LA-bound, and HA-bound). Analyses of ACh-binding protein structures suggest that this binding site, too, may adopt three discrete structures having different degrees of loop C displacement ("capping"). For the agonists we tested, the logarithms of the equilibrium constants for LA binding and LA↔HA gating were correlated. Although agonist binding and channel gating have long been considered to be separate processes in the activation of ligand-gated ion channels, this correlation implies that the catch-and-hold conformational changes are energetically linked and together comprise an integrated process having a common structural basis. We propose that loop C capping mainly reflects agonist binding, with its two stages corresponding to the formation of the LA and HA complexes. The catch-and-hold reaction coordinate is discussed in terms of preopening states and thermodynamic cycles of activation.

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