Mechanism of potassium-channel selectivity revealed by Na(+) and Li(+) binding sites within the KcsA pore

Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2009 Dec;16(12):1317-24. doi: 10.1038/nsmb.1703. Epub 2009 Nov 29.


Potassium channels allow K(+) ions to diffuse through their pores while preventing smaller Na(+) ions from permeating. Discrimination between these similar, abundant ions enables these proteins to control electrical and chemical activity in all organisms. Selection occurs at the narrow selectivity filter containing structurally identified K(+) binding sites. Selectivity is thought to arise because smaller ions such as Na(+) do not bind to these K(+) sites in a thermodynamically favorable way. Using the model K(+) channel KcsA, we examined how intracellular Na(+) and Li(+) interact with the pore and the permeant ions using electrophysiology, molecular dynamics simulations and X-ray crystallography. Our results suggest that these small cations have a separate binding site within the K(+) selectivity filter. We propose that selective permeation from the intracellular side primarily results from a large energy barrier blocking filter entry for Na(+) and Li(+) in the presence of K(+), not from a difference of binding affinity between ions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Proteins / metabolism*
  • Binding Sites
  • Cations / metabolism*
  • Crystallography, X-Ray
  • Electricity
  • Lithium / metabolism*
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation
  • Potassium / metabolism*
  • Potassium Channels / metabolism*
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Sodium / metabolism*
  • Streptomyces lividans / enzymology*
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Bacterial Proteins
  • Cations
  • Potassium Channels
  • prokaryotic potassium channel
  • Lithium
  • Sodium
  • Potassium