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J Gen Physiol. 1985 May;85(5):669-98.

An ion's view of the potassium channel. The structure of the permeation pathway as sensed by a variety of blocking ions.


We have studied the block of potassium channels in voltage-clamped squid giant axons by nine organic and alkali cations, in order to learn how the channel selects among entering ions. When added to the internal solution, all of the ions blocked the channels, with inside-positive voltages enhancing the block. Cesium blocked the channels from the outside as well, with inside-negative voltages favoring block. We compared the depths to which different ions entered the channel by estimating the "apparent electrical distance" to the blocking site. Simulations with a three-barrier, double-occupancy model showed that the "apparent electrical distance," expressed as a fraction of the total transmembrane voltage, appears to be less than the actual value if the blocking ion can pass completely through the channel. These calculations strengthen our conclusion that sodium and cesium block at sites further into the channel than those occupied by lithium and the organic blockers. Our results, considered together with earlier work, demonstrate that the depth to which an ion can readily penetrate into the potassium channel depends both on its size and on the specific chemical groups on its molecular surface. The addition of hydroxyl groups to alkyl chains on a quaternary ammonium ion can both decrease the strength of binding and allow deeper penetration into the channel. For alkali cations, the degree of hydration is probably crucial in determining how far an ion penetrates. Lithium, the most strongly hydrated, appeared not to penetrate as far as sodium and cesium. Our data suggest that there are, minimally, four ion binding sites in the permeation pathway of the potassium channel, with simultaneous occupancy of at least two.

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