MacKinnon lab's newest picture tells action potential story

Scientists studying the tiny devices -- called voltage-dependent ion channels -- that are responsible for all nerve and muscle signals in living organisms for 50 years have been working like a bunch of blindfolded art critics.

Imagine evaluating sculptures, for example, without the privilege of sight. The task of analyzing visual art would shrink to partial, indirect descriptions that fail in conveying the object's true character. Some aspects of the work of art and its surroundings would still be accessible, but ultimately the analysis would be unsatisfying, inaccurate and misleading.

Rockefeller's Roderick MacKinnon, M.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Youxing Jiang, Ph.D., and their colleagues have removed the blindfold to reveal a masterpiece of nature's engineering.

The masterpiece is a voltage-dependent potassium ion channel, the first published picture of which illustrates the cover of Nature's May 1 edition, revealed by MacKinnon and his rainmaking group of biophysicist-crystallographers. Inside, Nature features two articles, co-authored by
Vanessa Ruta, Alice Lee, Jiayun Chen, Brian Chait, D. Phil.,
and Martine Cadene, Ph.D. that correct the proposals of
scientists who lacked the definitive picture showing a potassium channel with charge-triggered "paddles" responsible for opening and closing a passage for potassium ions to freely move through.

"While their research data was very good, their interpretation was incorrect," says MacKinnon. "Ambitious and gifted scientists had for years only a sketch, based on indirect experiments, for what the voltage-dependent channel actually looked like."

In 1998, MacKinnon and his research team published the very first potassium channel structure, which revealed the way that positively charged potassium ions flow easily through a protein's pore spanning the cell membrane. In the five years following, the Rockefeller scientists have revealed the inne

Contact: Lynn Love
Rockefeller University

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