All animals use a sophisticated array of receptor proteins to sense their external and internal environments. Major advances have been made in recent years in understanding the molecular and genetic bases for sensory transduction in diverse modalities, indicating that both metabotropic and ionotropic pathways are important in sensory functions. Here, I review the historical background and recent advances in understanding the roles of a relatively newly discovered family of receptors, the degenerin/epithelial sodium channels (DEG/ENaC). These animal-specific cation channels show a remarkable sequence and functional diversity in different species and seem to exert their functions in diverse sensory modalities. Functions for DEG/ENaC channels have been implicated in mechanosensation as well as chemosensory transduction pathways. In spite of overall sequence diversity, all family members share a unique protein topology that includes just two transmembrane domains and an unusually large and highly structured extracellular domain, that seem to be essential for both their mechanical and chemical sensory functions. This review will discuss many of the recent discoveries and controversies associated with sensory function of DEG/ENaC channels in both vertebrate and invertebrate model systems, covering the role of family members in taste, mechanosensation, and pain.
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