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J Am Chem Soc. 2013 Feb 13;135(6):2172-80. doi: 10.1021/ja307275v. Epub 2013 Feb 4.

Asymmetric ligand binding facilitates conformational transitions in pentameric ligand-gated ion channels.

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Department of Anesthesiology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15261, USA.


The anesthetic propofol inhibits the currents of the homopentameric ligand-gated ion channel GLIC, yet the crystal structure of GLIC with five propofol molecules bound symmetrically shows an open-channel conformation. To address this dilemma and determine if the symmetry of propofol binding sites affects the channel conformational transition, we performed a total of 1.5 μs of molecular dynamics simulations for different GLIC systems with propofol occupancies of 0, 1, 2, 3, and 5. GLIC without propofol binding or with five propofol molecules bound symmetrically, showed similar channel conformation and hydration status over multiple replicates of 100-ns simulations. In contrast, asymmetric binding to one, two or three equivalent sites in different subunits accelerated the channel dehydration, increased the conformational heterogeneity of the pore-lining TM2 helices, and shifted the lateral and radial tilting angles of TM2 toward a closed-channel conformation. The results differentiate two groups of systems based on the propofol binding symmetry. The difference between symmetric and asymmetric groups is correlated with the variance in the propofol-binding cavity adjacent to the hydrophobic gate and the force imposed by the bound propofol. Asymmetrically bound propofol produced greater variance in the cavity size that could further elevate the conformation heterogeneity. The force trajectory generated by propofol in each subunit over the course of a simulation exhibits an ellipsoidal shape, which has the larger component tangential to the pore. Asymmetric propofol binding creates an unbalanced force that expedites the channel conformation transitions. The findings from this study not only suggest that asymmetric binding underlies the propofol functional inhibition of GLIC, but also advocate for the role of symmetry breaking in facilitating channel conformational transitions.

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