Identification of the prokaryotic ligand-gated ion channels and their implications for the mechanisms and origins of animal Cys-loop ion channels

Genome Biol. 2005;6(1):R4. doi: 10.1186/gb-2004-6-1-r4. Epub 2004 Dec 20.


Background: Acetylcholine receptor type ligand-gated ion channels (ART-LGIC; also known as Cys-loop receptors) are a superfamily of proteins that include the receptors for major neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine, serotonin, glycine, GABA, glutamate and histamine, and for Zn2+ ions. They play a central role in fast synaptic signaling in animal nervous systems and so far have not been found outside of the Metazoa.

Results: Using sensitive sequence-profile searches we have identified homologs of ART-LGICs in several bacteria and a single archaeal genus, Methanosarcina. The homology between the animal receptors and the prokaryotic homologs spans the entire length of the former, including both the ligand-binding and channel-forming transmembrane domains. A sequence-structure analysis using the structure of Lymnaea stagnalis acetylcholine-binding protein and the newly detected prokaryotic versions indicates the presence of at least one aromatic residue in the ligand-binding boxes of almost all representatives of the superfamily. Investigation of the domain architectures of the bacterial forms shows that they may often show fusions with other small-molecule-binding domains, such as the periplasmic binding protein superfamily I (PBP-I), Cache and MCP-N domains. Some of the bacterial forms also occur in predicted operons with the genes of the PBP-II superfamily and the Cache domains. Analysis of phyletic patterns suggests that the ART-LGICs are currently absent in all other eukaryotic lineages except animals. Moreover, phylogenetic analysis and conserved sequence motifs also suggest that a subset of the bacterial forms is closer to the metazoan forms.

Conclusions: From the information from the bacterial forms we infer that cation-pi or hydrophobic interactions with the ligand are likely to be a pervasive feature of the entire superfamily, even though the individual residues involved in the process may vary. The conservation pattern in the channel-forming transmembrane domains also suggests similar channel-gating mechanisms in the prokaryotic versions. From the distribution of charged residues in the prokaryotic M2 transmembrane segments, we expect that there will be examples of both cation and anion selectivity within the prokaryotic members. Contextual connections suggest that the prokaryotic forms may function as chemotactic receptors for low molecular weight solutes. The phyletic patterns and phylogenetic relationships suggest the possibility that the metazoan receptors emerged through an early lateral transfer from a prokaryotic source, before the divergence of extant metazoan lineages.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / chemistry
  • Cysteine / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Ion Channel Gating*
  • Ligands
  • Lymnaea / chemistry
  • Methanosarcina / chemistry
  • Models, Biological*
  • Nervous System / metabolism
  • Phylogeny
  • Prokaryotic Cells / chemistry*
  • Prokaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / chemistry*
  • Receptors, Cholinergic / metabolism*
  • Structure-Activity Relationship


  • Ligands
  • Receptors, Cholinergic
  • Cysteine