How an ion channel converts mechanical force into an electrical signal

12 March 2015

How an ion channel converts mechanical force into an electrical signal

In a study published in the journal Science, scientists in the Oxford Physics Department have helped to understand how an ion channel protein can respond to changes in mechanical force within the cell membrane to produce an electrical signal. As part of the interdisciplinary OXION Ion Channel Initiative in Oxford, Professor Stephen Tucker and his team in the Biological Physics Group worked in collaboration with Professor Liz Carpenter (Structural Genomics Consortium, Oxford) and Professor Mark Sansom (Biochemistry, Oxford), as well as with scientists at Pfizer to probe the molecular mechanisms underlying the function of the ‘TREK2’ potassium channel.

This study involved solving the X-ray crystal structure of the channel protein in two different conformations and also with an inhibitor bound. Then using a variety of biophysical and computational approaches they were able to understand how these conformational changes control its function. In particular their results suggest how stretching a cell membrane may switch the channel between an electrically conductive and non-conductive state. These ion channels are found in nerve cells involved the sensation of pain and so it is hoped that understanding their molecular mechanism of action may lead to better therapeutic approaches for the treatment of pain.