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Biophys J. 2008 Jun;94(11):4282-98. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.107.120493. Epub 2008 Jan 30.

Bubbles, gating, and anesthetics in ion channels.

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Max-Planck Institut für Metallforschung, Stuttgart, Germany.


We suggest that bubbles are the bistable hydrophobic gates responsible for the on-off transitions of single channel currents. In this view, many types of channels gate by the same physical mechanism-dewetting by capillary evaporation-but different types of channels use different sensors to modulate hydrophobic properties of the channel wall and thereby trigger and control bubbles and gating. Spontaneous emptying of channels has been seen in many simulations. Because of the physics involved, such phase transitions are inherently sensitive, unstable threshold phenomena that are difficult to simulate reproducibly and thus convincingly. We present a thermodynamic analysis of a bubble gate using morphometric density functional theory of classical (not quantum) mechanics. Thermodynamic analysis of phase transitions is generally more reproducible and less sensitive to details than simulations. Anesthetic actions of inert gases-and their interactions with hydrostatic pressure (e.g., nitrogen narcosis)-can be easily understood by actions on bubbles. A general theory of gas anesthesia may involve bubbles in channels. Only experiments can show whether, or when, or which channels actually use bubbles as hydrophobic gates: direct observation of bubbles in channels is needed. Existing experiments show thin gas layers on hydrophobic surfaces in water and suggest that bubbles nearly exist in bulk water.

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