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Nature. 2009 Sep 10;461(7261):292-5. doi: 10.1038/nature08291. Epub 2009 Aug 30.

Structure of the BK potassium channel in a lipid membrane from electron cryomicroscopy.

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Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology, Yale University, 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06520, USA.


A long-sought goal in structural biology has been the imaging of membrane proteins in their membrane environments. This goal has been achieved with electron crystallography in those special cases where a protein forms highly ordered arrays in lipid bilayers. It has also been achieved by NMR methods in proteins up to 50 kilodaltons (kDa) in size, although milligram quantities of protein and isotopic labelling are required. For structural analysis of large soluble proteins in microgram quantities, an increasingly powerful method that does not require crystallization is single-particle reconstruction from electron microscopy of cryogenically cooled samples (electron cryomicroscopy (cryo-EM)). Here we report the first single-particle cryo-EM study of a membrane protein, the human large-conductance calcium- and voltage-activated potassium channel (BK), in a lipid environment. The new method is called random spherically constrained (RSC) single-particle reconstruction. BK channels, members of the six-transmembrane-segment (6TM) ion channel family, were reconstituted at low density into lipid vesicles (liposomes), and their function was verified by a potassium flux assay. Vesicles were also frozen in vitreous ice and imaged in an electron microscope. From images of 8,400 individual protein particles, a three-dimensional (3D) reconstruction of the BK channel and its membrane environment was obtained at a resolution of 1.7-2.0 nm. Not requiring the formation of crystals, the RSC approach promises to be useful in the structural study of many other membrane proteins as well.

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