String method solution of the gating pathways for a pentameric ligand-gated ion channel [Biophysics and Computational Biology]
Pentameric ligand-gated ion channels control synaptic neurotransmission by converting chemical signals into electrical signals. Agonist binding leads to rapid signal transduction via an allosteric mechanism, where global protein conformational changes open a pore across the nerve cell membrane. We use all-atom molecular dynamics with a swarm-based string method to solve for the minimum free-energy gating pathways of the proton-activated bacterial GLIC channel. We describe stable wetted/open and dewetted/closed states, and uncover conformational changes in the agonist-binding extracellular domain, ion-conducting transmembrane domain, and gating interface that control communication between these domains. Transition analysis is used to compute free-energy surfaces that suggest allosteric pathways; stabilization with pH; and intermediates, including states that facilitate channel closing in the presence of an agonist. We describe a switching mechanism that senses proton binding by marked reorganization of subunit interface, altering the packing of β-sheets to induce changes that lead to asynchronous pore-lining M2 helix movements. These results provide molecular details of GLIC gating and insight into the allosteric mechanisms for the superfamily of pentameric ligand-gated channels.
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