MacKinnon lab's newest picture tells action potential story

studying the action potential, scientists have shown that the permeability sets the membrane voltage. In other words, ion channels' opened or closed positions have an impact on the charge value of the cell membrane.

Scientists understand how membrane permeability to ions sets the voltage. Until now, however, no group of researchers had ever solved the riddle of how the membrane voltage determines the permeability, completing the feedback loop.

The combination of a picture of the voltage-dependent potassium channel at an atomic level and the functional and biochemical analysis by MacKinnon and his colleagues answers this question.

"We can now see how membrane voltage will change the shape of this kind of potassium channel," says MacKinnon, "causing it to open and close depending on the polarity of the membrane voltage."

Conservation committee

MacKinnon's group provides the first picture of a potassium voltage-dependent ion channel. Other kinds of voltage-dependent channels -- sodium and calcium -- will look very similar because scientists know the genetic sequence of all three types. In these sequences, high conservation, or duplication, across types, tells researchers that these channels share similar structure.

What's more, while the Rockefeller scientists conducted their research using voltage-dependent potassium channels from archaea, a type of primitive organism, called Aeropyrum pernix that live in oceanic thermal vents, they found that tarantula and scorpion nerve toxins, whose purpose is to inhibit channels from higher organisms like humans and other mammals, also inhibit the archaea channels.

Vanessa Ruta, a graduate fellow at Rockefeller and first author on a March 2 letter in Nature described the results: "There is no reason for a South American tarantula or a Middle Eastern scorpion to inhibit an exotic, lower order creature that resides in a Japanese ocean thermal vent. This implies that

Contact: Lynn Love
Rockefeller University

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