The phenomenon of ligand-induced ion channel gating hinges upon the ability of a receptor channel to bind ligand molecules with conformation-specific affinities. However, our understanding of this fundamental phenomenon is notably limited, not only because the changes in binding site structure and ligand conformation that occur upon gating are largely unknown but, also, because the strength of these ligand-receptor interactions are experimentally elusive. Both high- and low-efficacy ligands pose a number of analytical and experimental challenges that can render the estimation of their conformation-specific binding affinities impossible. In this paper, we present a novel assay that overcomes some of the hurdles presented by weak agonists of the muscle nicotinic receptor and allows the estimation of their closed-state affinities. The method, which we have termed the "activation-competition" assay, consists of a single-channel concentration-response assay performed in the presence of a binary mixture of ligands of widely different efficacies. By plotting the channel response (i.e., the open probability) as a function of the concentration of each agonist in the mixture, interpreting the observed response in the framework of a plausible kinetic scheme, and fitting the open probability surface with the corresponding function, the affinities of the closed receptor for the two agonists can be simultaneously extracted as free parameters. Here, we applied this methodology to estimate the closed-state affinity of the muscle nicotinic receptor for choline (a very weak agonist) using acetylcholine (ACh) as the partner in the mixture. We estimated the dissociation equilibrium constant of choline (KD) from the wild type's closed state to be 4.1 ± 0.5 mM (and that of ACh to be 106 ± 6 μM). We also discuss the use of accurate estimates of affinities for low-efficacy agonists as a tool to discriminate between binding and gating effects of mutations, and in the context of the rational design of therapeutic drugs.
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