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Biophys J. 1989 Jun;55(6):1041-52.

How electrolyte shielding influences the electrical potential in transmembrane ion channels.

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Department of Chemistry, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts 02254.


The electrical potential due to fixed charge distributions is strongly altered in the vicinity of a membrane and notably dependent on aqueous electrolyte concentration. We present an efficient way to solve the nonlinear Poisson-Boltzmann equation applicable to general cylindrically symmetric dielectric geometries. It generalizes Gouy-Chapman theory to systems containing transmembrane channels. The method is applied to three channel systems: gramicidin, gap junction, and porin. We find that for a long, narrow channel such as gramicidin concentration variation has little influence on the electrical image barrier to ion permeation. However, electrolyte shielding reduces the image induced contribution to the energy required for multiple occupancy. In addition, the presence of electrolyte significantly affects the voltage profile due to an applied potential, substantially compressing the electric field to the immediate vicinity of the pore itself. In the large diameter channels, where bulk electrolyte may be assumed to enter the pore, the electrolyte greatly reduces the image barrier to ion permeation. At physiological ionic strengths this barrier is negligible and the channel may be readily multiply occupied. At all ionic strengths considered (l greater than 0.005 M) the image barrier saturates rapidly and is essentially constant more than one channel radius from the entrance to the pore. At lower ionic strengths (l less than 0.016 M) there are noticeable (greater than 20 mV) energy penalties associated with multiple occupancy.

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