Cryo-EM structures of a lipid-sensitive pentameric ligand-gated ion channel embedded in a phosphatidylcholine-only bilayer

Pramod Kumar, Yuhang Wang, Zhening Zhang, Zhiyu Zhao, Gisela D. Cymes, Emad Tajkhorshid, Claudio Grosman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The lipid dependence of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor from the Torpedo electric organ has long been recognized, and one of the most consistent experimental observations is that, when reconstituted in membranes formed by zwitterionic phospholipids alone, exposure to agonist fails to elicit ion-flux activity. More recently, it has been suggested that the bacterial homolog ELIC (Erwinia chrysanthemi ligand-gated ion channel) has a similar lipid sensitivity. As a first step toward the elucidation of the structural basis of this phenomenon, we solved the structures of ELIC embedded in palmitoyl-oleoyl-phosphatidylcholine- (POPC-) only nanodiscs in both the unliganded (4.1-Å resolution) and agonist-bound (3.3 Å) states using single-particle cryoelectron microscopy. Comparison of the two structural models revealed that the largest differences occur at the level of loop C-at the agonist-binding sites-and the loops at the interface between the extracellular and transmembrane domains (ECD and TMD, respectively). On the other hand, the transmembrane pore is occluded in a remarkably similar manner in both structures. A straightforward interpretation of these findings is that POPC-only membranes frustrate the ECD-TMD coupling in such a way that the "conformational wave" of liganded-receptor gating takes place in the ECD and the interfacial M2-M3 linker but fails to penetrate the membrane and propagate into the TMD. Furthermore, analysis of the structural models and molecular simulations suggested that the higher affinity for agonists characteristic of the open- and desensitized-channel conformations results, at least in part, from the tighter confinement of the ligand to its binding site; this limits the ligand's fluctuations, and thus delays its escape into bulk solvent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1788-1798
Number of pages11
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 21 2020


  • Allosteric proteins
  • Cys-loop receptors
  • Lipid membranes
  • Molecular dynamics
  • Structure-function relationships

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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