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Observing and Modeling a Crucial Membrane Channel (Feb 2007)

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made with VMD and Tachyon

Bacteria employ membrane proteins as crucial safety valves that release water and small solutes under challenging osmotic conditions (see the May 2006 highlight, "Electrical Safety Valve" and the Nov 2004 highlight, "Japanese Lantern Protein"). There are valves for balancing small pressure differences between the inside and outside of bacterial cells, that open and close readily, but there are also ones for protection against large pressure differences as a safety measure of last resort. The valves for balancing small pressure differences, like the one shown in the figure, include a filter that presumably keeps the most valuable molecules inside the cell interior, though this is not understood yet in detail. To reveal the function of such channels a combination of X-ray crystallography, physiological measurements, and molecular dynamics simulations using NAMD has been employed. Crystallography, in a prior study, captured the channel in a half-way open state. Now a team of physiologists and modelers reported the details on valve opening and closing. The experiments, using a pipette small enough to measure currents from a single channel, MscS, along with the simulations revealed that the channel conducts both positive and negative ions when subjected to tension and voltage. The unprecedented comparison of experimental and computational results open a new era of quantitative cell biology that borrows successful research strategies from physics (more on our MscS website).