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Biophys Chem. 2006 Dec 1;124(3):279-91. Epub 2006 Jun 18.

Ion selectivity in potassium channels.

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Institute for Molecular Pediatric Sciences and Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Gordon Center for Integrative Sciences, University of Chicago, 929 East 57th Street, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Potassium channels are tetrameric membrane-spanning proteins that provide a selective pore for the conduction of K(+) across the cell membranes. One of the main physiological functions of potassium channels is efficient and very selective transport of K(+) ions through the membrane to the cell. Classical views of ion selectivity are summarized within a historical perspective, and contrasted with the molecular dynamics (MD) simulations free energy perturbation (FEP) performed on the basis of the crystallographic structure of the KcsA phospholipid membrane. The results show that the KcsA channel does not select for K(+) ions by providing a binding site of an appropriate (fixed) cavity size. Rather, selectivity for K(+) arises directly from the intrinsic local physical properties of the ligands coordinating the cation in the binding site, and is a robust feature of a pore symmetrically lined by backbone carbonyl groups. Further analysis reveals that it is the interplay between the attractive ion-ligand (favoring smaller cation) and repulsive ligand-ligand interactions (favoring larger cations) that is the basic element governing Na(+)/K(+) selectivity in flexible protein binding sites. Because the number and the type of ligands coordinating an ion directly modulate such local interactions, this provides a potent molecular mechanism to achieve and maintain a high selectivity in protein binding sites despite a significant conformational flexibility.

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