Research Article

Activation mechanism of a human SK-calmodulin channel complex elucidated by cryo-EM structures

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Science  04 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6388, pp. 508-513
DOI: 10.1126/science.aas9466

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How calcium gates a potassium channel

Small-conductance Ca2+-activated K+ (SK) channels are expressed throughout the nervous system and affect both the intrinsic excitability of neurons and synaptic transmission. An increase in the concentration of intracellular calcium opens the channels to conduct potassium across the cell membrane. Lee and MacKinnon report cryo–electron microscopy structures of human SK4-calmodulin channel complexes. Activation occurs when calcium binds to calmodulin, a protein with two lobes, known as C and N, separated by a flexible region. Each monomer in the channel tetramer binds constitutively to the C-lobe of calmodulin. The N-lobe of calmodulin is reasonably unconstrained until it binds calcium. With calcium bound, it then binds to the channel and induces conformational changes that open the pore.

Science, this issue p. 508


Small-conductance Ca2+-activated K+ (SK) channels mediate neuron excitability and are associated with synaptic transmission and plasticity. They also regulate immune responses and the size of blood cells. Activation of SK channels requires calmodulin (CaM), but how CaM binds and opens SK channels has been unclear. Here we report cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM) structures of a human SK4-CaM channel complex in closed and activated states at 3.4- and 3.5-angstrom resolution, respectively. Four CaM molecules bind to one channel tetramer. Each lobe of CaM serves a distinct function: The C-lobe binds to the channel constitutively, whereas the N-lobe interacts with the S4-S5 linker in a Ca2+-dependent manner. The S4-S5 linker, which contains two distinct helices, undergoes conformational changes upon CaM binding to open the channel pore. These structures reveal the gating mechanism of SK channels and provide a basis for understanding SK channel pharmacology.

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