Computational analyses on the structure-function relation in ion channels

Furini, Simone (2008) Computational analyses on the structure-function relation in ion channels, [Dissertation thesis], Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Dottorato di ricerca in Bioingegneria, 20 Ciclo. DOI 10.6092/unibo/amsdottorato/676.
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Ion channels are protein molecules, embedded in the lipid bilayer of the cell membranes. They act as powerful sensing elements switching chemicalphysical stimuli into ion-fluxes. At a glance, ion channels are water-filled pores, which can open and close in response to different stimuli (gating), and one once open select the permeating ion species (selectivity). They play a crucial role in several physiological functions, like nerve transmission, muscular contraction, and secretion. Besides, ion channels can be used in technological applications for different purpose (sensing of organic molecules, DNA sequencing). As a result, there is remarkable interest in understanding the molecular determinants of the channel functioning. Nowadays, both the functional and the structural characteristics of ion channels can be experimentally solved. The purpose of this thesis was to investigate the structure-function relation in ion channels, by computational techniques. Most of the analyses focused on the mechanisms of ion conduction, and the numerical methodologies to compute the channel conductance. The standard techniques for atomistic simulation of complex molecular systems (Molecular Dynamics) cannot be routinely used to calculate ion fluxes in membrane channels, because of the high computational resources needed. The main step forward of the PhD research activity was the development of a computational algorithm for the calculation of ion fluxes in protein channels. The algorithm - based on the electrodiffusion theory - is computational inexpensive, and was used for an extensive analysis on the molecular determinants of the channel conductance. The first record of ion-fluxes through a single protein channel dates back to 1976, and since then measuring the single channel conductance has become a standard experimental procedure. Chapter 1 introduces ion channels, and the experimental techniques used to measure the channel currents. The abundance of functional data (channel currents) does not match with an equal abundance of structural data. The bacterial potassium channel KcsA was the first selective ion channels to be experimentally solved (1998), and after KcsA the structures of four different potassium channels were revealed. These experimental data inspired a new era in ion channel modeling. Once the atomic structures of channels are known, it is possible to define mathematical models based on physical descriptions of the molecular systems. These physically based models can provide an atomic description of ion channel functioning, and predict the effect of structural changes. Chapter 2 introduces the computation methods used throughout the thesis to model ion channels functioning at the atomic level. In Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 the ion conduction through potassium channels is analyzed, by an approach based on the Poisson-Nernst-Planck electrodiffusion theory. In the electrodiffusion theory ion conduction is modeled by the drift-diffusion equations, thus describing the ion distributions by continuum functions. The numerical solver of the Poisson- Nernst-Planck equations was tested in the KcsA potassium channel (Chapter 3), and then used to analyze how the atomic structure of the intracellular vestibule of potassium channels affects the conductance (Chapter 4). As a major result, a correlation between the channel conductance and the potassium concentration in the intracellular vestibule emerged. The atomic structure of the channel modulates the potassium concentration in the vestibule, thus its conductance. This mechanism explains the phenotype of the BK potassium channels, a sub-family of potassium channels with high single channel conductance. The functional role of the intracellular vestibule is also the subject of Chapter 5, where the affinity of the potassium channels hEag1 (involved in tumour-cell proliferation) and hErg (important in the cardiac cycle) for several pharmaceutical drugs was compared. Both experimental measurements and molecular modeling were used in order to identify differences in the blocking mechanism of the two channels, which could be exploited in the synthesis of selective blockers. The experimental data pointed out the different role of residue mutations in the blockage of hEag1 and hErg, and the molecular modeling provided a possible explanation based on different binding sites in the intracellular vestibule. Modeling ion channels at the molecular levels relates the functioning of a channel to its atomic structure (Chapters 3-5), and can also be useful to predict the structure of ion channels (Chapter 6-7). In Chapter 6 the structure of the KcsA potassium channel depleted from potassium ions is analyzed by molecular dynamics simulations. Recently, a surprisingly high osmotic permeability of the KcsA channel was experimentally measured. All the available crystallographic structure of KcsA refers to a channel occupied by potassium ions. To conduct water molecules potassium ions must be expelled from KcsA. The structure of the potassium-depleted KcsA channel and the mechanism of water permeation are still unknown, and have been investigated by numerical simulations. Molecular dynamics of KcsA identified a possible atomic structure of the potassium-depleted KcsA channel, and a mechanism for water permeation. The depletion from potassium ions is an extreme situation for potassium channels, unlikely in physiological conditions. However, the simulation of such an extreme condition could help to identify the structural conformations, so the functional states, accessible to potassium ion channels. The last chapter of the thesis deals with the atomic structure of the !- Hemolysin channel. !-Hemolysin is the major determinant of the Staphylococcus Aureus toxicity, and is also the prototype channel for a possible usage in technological applications. The atomic structure of !- Hemolysin was revealed by X-Ray crystallography, but several experimental evidences suggest the presence of an alternative atomic structure. This alternative structure was predicted, combining experimental measurements of single channel currents and numerical simulations. This thesis is organized in two parts, in the first part an overview on ion channels and on the numerical methods adopted throughout the thesis is provided, while the second part describes the research projects tackled in the course of the PhD programme. The aim of the research activity was to relate the functional characteristics of ion channels to their atomic structure. In presenting the different research projects, the role of numerical simulations to analyze the structure-function relation in ion channels is highlighted.

Tipologia del documento
Tesi di dottorato
Furini, Simone
Dottorato di ricerca
Settore disciplinare
Settore concorsuale
Parole chiave
canali ionici
Data di discussione
18 Aprile 2008

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