Localization of agonist and competitive antagonist binding sites on nicotinic acetylcholine receptors

Neurochem Int. 2000 Jun;36(7):595-645. doi: 10.1016/s0197-0186(99)00154-0.


Identification of all residues involved in the recognition and binding of cholinergic ligands (e.g. agonists, competitive antagonists, and noncompetitive agonists) is a primary objective to understand which structural components are related to the physiological function of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (AChR). The picture for the localization of the agonist/competitive antagonist binding sites is now clearer in the light of newer and better experimental evidence. These sites are located mainly on both alpha subunits in a pocket approximately 30-35 A above the surface membrane. Since both alpha subunits are identical, the observed high and low affinity for different ligands on the receptor is conditioned by the interaction of the alpha subunit with other non-alpha subunits. This molecular interaction takes place at the interface formed by the different subunits. For example, the high-affinity acetylcholine (ACh) binding site of the muscle-type AChR is located on the alphadelta subunit interface, whereas the low-affinity ACh binding site is located on the alphagamma subunit interface. Regarding homomeric AChRs (e.g. alpha7, alpha8, and alpha9), up to five binding sites may be located on the alphaalpha subunit interfaces. From the point of view of subunit arrangement, the gamma subunit is in between both alpha subunits and the delta subunit follows the alpha aligned in a clockwise manner from the gamma. Although some competitive antagonists such as lophotoxin and alpha-bungarotoxin bind to the same high- and low-affinity sites as ACh, other cholinergic drugs may bind with opposite specificity. For instance, the location of the high- and the low-affinity binding site for curare-related drugs as well as for agonists such as the alkaloid nicotine and the potent analgesic epibatidine (only when the AChR is in the desensitized state) is determined by the alphagamma and the alphadelta subunit interface, respectively. The case of alpha-conotoxins (alpha-CoTxs) is unique since each alpha-CoTx from different species is recognized by a specific AChR type. In addition, the specificity of alpha-CoTxs for each subunit interface is species-dependent. In general terms we may state that both alpha subunits carry the principal component for the agonist/competitive antagonist binding sites, whereas the non-alpha subunits bear the complementary component. Concerning homomeric AChRs, both the principal and the complementary component exist on the alpha subunit. The principal component on the muscle-type AChR involves three loops-forming binding domains (loops A-C). Loop A (from mouse sequence) is mainly formed by residue Y(93), loop B is molded by amino acids W(149), Y(152), and probably G(153), while loop C is shaped by residues Y(190), C(192), C(193), and Y(198). The complementary component corresponding to each non-alpha subunit probably contributes with at least four loops. More specifically, the loops at the gamma subunit are: loop D which is formed by residue K(34), loop E that is designed by W(55) and E(57), loop F which is built by a stretch of amino acids comprising L(109), S(111), C(115), I(116), and Y(117), and finally loop G that is shaped by F(172) and by the negatively-charged amino acids D(174) and E(183). The complementary component on the delta subunit, which corresponds to the high-affinity ACh binding site, is formed by homologous loops. Regarding alpha-neurotoxins, several snake and alpha-CoTxs bear specific residues that are energetically coupled with their corresponding pairs on the AChR binding site. The principal component for snake alpha-neurotoxins is located on the residue sequence alpha1W(184)-D(200), which includes loop C. In addition, amino acid sequence 55-74 from the alpha1 subunit (which includes loop E), and residues gammaL(119) (close to loop F) and gammaE(176) (close to loop G) at the low-affinity binding site, or deltaL(121) (close to the homologous region of loop G) at the high-affinity binding site, are i

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Binding Sites
  • Binding, Competitive
  • Mutation / physiology
  • Nicotinic Agonists / metabolism*
  • Nicotinic Antagonists / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / chemistry
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / genetics
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism*
  • Tissue Distribution


  • Nicotinic Agonists
  • Nicotinic Antagonists
  • Receptors, Nicotinic