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J Mol Biol. 2010 Sep 3;401(5):831-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jmb.2010.07.006. Epub 2010 Jul 17.

Ion selectivity of the KcsA channel: a perspective from multi-ion free energy landscapes.

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


Potassium (K(+)) channels are specialized membrane proteins that are able to facilitate and regulate the conduction of K(+) through cell membranes. Comprising five specific cation binding sites (S(0)-S(4)) formed by the backbone carbonyl groups of conserved residues common to all K(+) channels, the narrow selectivity filter allows fast conduction of K(+) while being highly selective for K(+) over Na(+). To extend our knowledge of the microscopic mechanism underlying selectivity in K(+) channels, we characterize the free energy landscapes governing the entry and translocation of a Na(+) or a K(+) from the extracellular side into the selectivity filter of KcsA. The entry process of an extracellular ion is examined in the presence of two additional K(+) in the pore, and the three-ion potential of mean force is computed using extensive all-atom umbrella sampling molecular dynamics simulations. A comparison of the potentials of mean force yields a number of important results. First, the free energy minima corresponding to configurations with extracellular K(+) or Na(+) in binding site S(0) or S(1) are similar in depth, suggesting that the thermodynamic selectivity governed by the free energy minima for those two binding sites is insignificant. Second, the free energy barriers between stable multi-ion configurations are generally higher for Na(+) than for K(+), implying that the kinetics of ion conduction is slower when a Na(+) enters the pore. Third, the region corresponding to binding site S(2) near the center of the narrow pore emerges as the most selective for K(+) over Na(+). In particular, while there is a stable minimum for K(+) in site S(2), Na(+) faces a steep free energy increase with no local free energy well in this region. Lastly, analysis shows that selectivity is not correlated with the overall coordination number of the ion entering the pore, but is predominantly affected by changes in the type of coordinating ligands (carbonyls versus water molecules). These results further highlight the importance of the central region near binding site S(2) in the selectivity filter of K(+) channels.

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