Whether stubbing a toe or stroking a cat, the sensation of touch starts out as a mechanical force that is then transformed into an electrical signal conveying pain or other sensations. Tiny channels in neurons act as translators by helping to formulate that signal to the brain. However, scientists know little about the fine details of how these channels work.
New work at Rockefeller University has revealed that one such channel in humans responds to mechanical force using a never-before-seen mechanism. Researchers led by Roderick MacKinnon, John D. Rockefeller Jr. Professor and head of the Laboratory of Molecular Neurobiology and Biophysics examined the TRAAK channel, which is involved in painful touch sensation, at the molecular and atomic levels, finding that it works by reducing the flow of potassium ions that create an electrical signal. The researchers’ findings were released yesterday (December 3) in Nature.
Molecular roadblock: The TRAAK channel (purple and orange) dampens sensations by letting potassium ions escape from a neuron. Researchers found the channel uses a never-before-seen system for blocking that flow of ions when it closes: A lipid (yellow) from the neuron membrane (gray) protrudes into the channel.
”It is fascinating to wonder how living cells evolved molecules capable of turning small mechanical forces, such as those associated with touch, into electrical signals in the nervous system. That question served as the impetus for this work,” MacKinnon says.
The channels that act as gates in the membranes that envelop neurons, including TRAAK, allow electrically charged atoms, called ions, to move in or out. It’s this movement that is the basis for an electrical signal that carries information.
TRAAK channels are one of 78 types of channels in the human body that transport potassium ions; there are other devoted to other ion types. By allowing potassium to trickle out of the neuron, TRAAK normally quiets the neurons, balancing out other channels, which would otherwise create a strong electrical signal for pain.
“TRAAK acts kind of like the brakes on a painful touch sensation, while other channels act as the gas. If you take away the brakes, innocuous touch becomes painful,” says first author Stephen Brohawn, a postdoc in the lab.
Prior work in the lab has shown TRAAK responds to membrane tension – that is stretching caused by a physical force. However, it wasn’t clear how this force caused the channel to open. In fact, scientists had previously only explained the workings of two mechanical-force sensing channels, both of which are found in bacteria.
After purifying the protein that makes up TRAAK, the team crystallized it and determined its structure using X-ray diffraction analysis. Based on the pattern produced by X-rays bounced off the crystallized protein, scientists can infer the structure of the molecule. But because it is difficult to get high-quality crystals from TRAAK, the researchers used antibodies that targeted it to create a sort of scaffold to help guide the formation of crystals.
In the structural images revealed by this work, the researchers found a unique system is responsible for holding off the flow of ions. TRAAK’s central cavity, through which the ions must pass, is flanked by two spiral-shaped chains called helices. When both of these chains are kinked upward, the channel is open so potassium can leave the cell. But when one of these two chains relaxes downward, it uncovers a sort of side door into the center of the neuron membrane.
Neuron membranes, like all cell membranes, consist of two layers of molecules called lipids that have heads facing outward and greasy chains extending inward. When TRAAK’s side door is open, one of those greasy chains, called an acyl chain, pokes into TRAAK’s central cavity, blocking it so no potassium can pass. No known channel uses a mechanism like this.
“This is the first time anyone has seen, at a molecular level, how mechanical force can open a channel in animals, including humans,” Brohawn says. “When the membrane stretches, TRAAK widens, sort of like a dot on a balloon that expands as it is inflated. That wider conformation pulls the helices upward, preventing an acyl chain from blocking the channel, and so leaving it open for potassium ions.”
“The direct involvement of lipid molecules in the gating mechanism begins to explain another well-known property of TRAAK channels – that their gating is sensitive to general anesthetics and other molecules known to enter the lipid membrane where they insert themselves between its acyl chains. By doing so, it appears these anesthetics can shut down pain sensations by locking TRAAK in an open position,” MacKinnon says.
Zach Veilleux | newswise
Scientists uncover the role of a protein in production & survival of myelin-forming cells
19.07.2018 | Advanced Science Research Center, GC/CUNY
NYSCF researchers develop novel bioengineering technique for personalized bone grafts
18.07.2018 | New York Stem Cell Foundation
A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.
The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
20.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering
20.07.2018 | Information Technology
20.07.2018 | Materials Sciences