Unlocking the Secrets of Ion Permeation

In a remarkable scientific effort to comprehend the intricacies of ion permeation and selectivity, a study conducted by a diligent team of researchers from Lancaster University has emerged as a centerpiece in the understanding of voltage-gated sodium channels. In an article published in BMC Biophysics [DOI: 10.1186/s13628-019-0049-5], the scientists delineate their innovative endeavor to synthesize oligomers from bacterial sodium channel monomers, simulating the complex structure of their eukaryotic counterparts.

Voltage-gated sodium channels (VGSCs) are fundamental components of cellular membranes, meticulously regulating the influx of sodium ions that underpin crucial physiological processes such as nerve impulse transmission and muscle contraction. While bacterial sodium channels, exemplified by NaChBac, offer a simpler homotetrameric structure (four identical subunits), eukaryotic VGSCs flaunt a pseudo-heterotetrameric architecture with four dissimilar domains. This structural disparity has thwarted the direct application of bacterial channel studies to the understanding of their eukaryotic analogs.

The Approach to Structural Modelling

The study proceeded with an ambitious attempt to create covalently linked oligomers reminiscent of eukaryotic VGSCs. Profound insights into the functioning and structure of VGSCs were anticipated via this synthetic mimicry. The researchers’ foray centered on bacterial NavMs and NaChBac channels—the former being noted for its stability when expressed in heterologous systems.

Western blot analyses revealed that NaChBac oligomers were inherently unstable, posing a challenge to their use in the structural-functional analysis. Conversely, NavMs oligomers demonstrated intact expression. Notably, the NavMs tetramers, when expressed in human embryonic kidney cells, were localized to the plasma membrane and retained functionality analogous to their wild-type counterparts, as confirmed by immunodetection using confocal microscopy and electrophysiological characterization through patch clamp techniques.

Bridging Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic Channel Studies: Implications

By successfully concocting a stable, concatenation of bacterial Nav channel monomers, the study has instituted a new tool for probing into eukaryotic channel behavior. The covalent linkage is not merely a structural novelty but a strategic entryway to infusing radial asymmetry within bacterial Nav channels—a step closer to mimicking the eukaryotic complexity and studying it with precision.

This feat stands to unravel the structure-function relationships of VGSCs with unprecedented clarity. The study garners momentum from earlier works, including insights into the pore architecture and gating mechanisms revealed by prokaryotic VGSCs, and the understanding of eukaryotic VGSCs at near-atomic resolution.

The Academic and Clinical Relevance

Bearing profound academic and medicinal relevance, VGSCs have been the focus of myriad research efforts, given their role in a spectrum of disorders, including epilepsy, cardiac arrhythmias, and pain syndromes. The knowledge derived from bacterial VGSCs can propel the development of therapeutics targeting the eukaryotic channels, leading to more efficacious management of these conditions.

The current study should not be viewed in isolation. It symbolizes part of a continuous endeavor, entrenched in previous meticulous works, such as the crystal structures of VGSCs revealing their mechanisms of opening and closing, and the model of the ion channel cycle comprising the states of open, closed, and inactivated.

References and Future Directions

The research undertakes a commendable path paved by these preceding studies:

1. Catterall, W. A., & Zheng, N. Deciphering voltage-gated Na+ and Ca2+ channels by studying prokaryotic ancestors. Trends Biochem Sci. 2015;40:526–534. [PMC4553089](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553089/)
2. Shen, H., et al. Structure of a eukaryotic voltage-gated sodium channel at near-atomic resolution. Science. 2017;355:eaal4326. DOI: 10.1126/science.aal4326
3. Bagneris, C., et al. Role of the C-terminal domain in the structure and function of tetrameric sodium channels. Nat Commun. 2013;4. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3465
4. Xia, M., et al. The mechanism of Na+/K+ selectivity in mammalian voltage-gated sodium channels based on molecular dynamics simulation. Biophys J. 2013;104:2401–2409. [PMC3672897](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3672897/)
5 Baumann, S. W., et al. Subunit arrangement of gamma-aminobutyric acid type A receptors. J Biol Chem. 2001;276:36275–36280. [DOI: 10.1074/jbc.M106469200](https://www.jbc.org/article/S0021-9258(20)78690-0/fulltext)

Given the recent publication of the complete structure of an activated open sodium channel, and continual advancements in understanding selective ion permeation and channel antagonism, the research community eagerly anticipates future discoveries facilitated by such construct systems.


1. Voltage-Gated Sodium Channels
2. Bacterial VGSC Models
3. Ion Permeation Research
4. Structural Biology of VGSCs
5. Prokaryotic Models for Eukaryotic Channels


The study by the team at Lancaster University forms a keystone in the bridge between bacterial and eukaryotic VGSC research. The generation of covalently linked NavMs oligomers enabling radial asymmetry and functional studies paves the way for deeper understanding and potential therapeutical breakthroughs targeting human VGSC-associated diseases. This work, reflected in all its scientific optimism, stands as a testament to the continual endeavors that translate laboratory findings into clinical marvels.