Hco-UNC-49 is a GABA receptor from the parasitic nematode Haemonchus contortus that has a relatively low overall sequence similarity to vertebrate GABA receptors but is very similar to the UNC-49 receptor found in the free living nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. While the nematode receptors do share >80% sequence similarity they exhibit different sensitivities to GABA. In addition, the UNC-49C subunit appears to be a positive modulator of GABA sensitivity in the H. contortus heteromeric channel, but is a negative modulator in the C. elegans heteromeric channel. The cause(s) of these differences is currently unknown since the structural elements essential for GABA sensitivity in nematode receptors have been largely unexplored. Thus, the overall aim of this study was to investigate the residues that are important for UNC-49 receptor sensitivity through the use of homology modeling, site-directed mutagenesis, and two-electrode voltage clamp. This study revealed that Met(170) in Loop B of the GABA binding-site may partially account for the observed differences in GABA receptor sensitivity between the nematode species. Residues in Loops A-D that have been reported to form the GABA binding pocket in mammalian receptors, including those forming the conserved 'aromatic box', also appear to play analogous roles in Hco-UNC-49. In addition, the two mutations that produced the most significant reduction in GABA sensitivity were R66S and Y166S. Homology modeling indicates that these two residues share a hydrogen bond and are positioned close to the carboxyl end of the GABA molecule. However, of residues examined in this study, only those on the Hco-UNC-49B subunit and not its subunit partner, Hco-UNC-49C, appear important for GABA sensitivity. Overall, results from this study suggest that the binding site of the UNC-49 heteromeric GABA receptor exhibits some differences compared to classical vertebrate GABA(A) receptors.
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