For ClC transporters, breaking up is hard to do

Many ion channels and transporters exist as oligomers with each subunit containing a distinct transport pathway.  A classic example is the ClC family of chloride channels and transporters that are homodimeric with a pathway for chloride permeation or chloride/proton anti-port through each subunit.  Because of their dimer structure, they have come to be known as “double-barreled shotguns” for chloride movement across the membrane.

Since each subunit appears to possess the complete machinery required for transport, it is  often wondered whether ClCs need to be dimeric in order to carry out function.  In a study published last week in Nature, Brandeis researchers Janice Robertson, Ludmila Kolmakova-Partensky and Professor Christopher Miller answer this question.  By introducing two tryptophan mutations at the dimer interface, they designed a variant of a ClC transporter that could be purified and crystallized as an isolated monomer.  With this, they were able to determine that the monomer alone was fully capable of carrying out chloride and proton transport function.  These results show that the dimer is not required and that the monomer is the fundamental unit of transport in ClCs.  The question of why ClCs evolved as dimers remains a key question for understanding membrane protein structure.

Chloride channels and antiport mechanism

In a new paper in Journal of General Physiology, Brandeis postdoc Hyun-Ho Lim and Professor Christopher Miller examine the detailed mechanism by which a chloride transporter protein works. In particular, this protein does a rather crazy thing: it stoichiometrically swaps a proton on one side of the membrane for two Cl- ions on the other, and countertransports them across the membrane.  In this work, the authors identify a special glutamate residue on the cytoplasmic side of the protein that is responsible for picking up protons on that side in order to carry out this “antiport” mechanism.  (That glutamate is indicated by the spacefilled residue with red oxygen atoms in this depiction of the dimeric protein.)

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