Cholesterol (CLR) is an essential component of eukaryotic plasma membranes. CLR regulates the membrane physical state, microdomain formation and the activity of membrane-spanning proteins, including ion channels. Large conductance, voltage- and Ca²⁺-gated K⁺ (BK) channels link membrane potential to cell Ca²⁺ homeostasis. Thus, they control many physiological processes and participate in pathophysiological mechanisms leading to human disease. Because plasmalemma BK channels cluster in CLR-rich membrane microdomains, a major driving force for studying BK channel-CLR interactions is determining how membrane CLR controls the BK current phenotype, including its pharmacology, channel sorting, distribution, and role in cell physiology. Since both BK channels and CLR tissue levels play a pathophysiological role in human disease, identifying functional and structural aspects of the CLR-BK channel interaction may open new avenues for therapeutic intervention. Here, we review the studies documenting membrane CLR-BK channel interactions, dissecting out the many factors that determine the final BK current response to changes in membrane CLR content. We also summarize work in reductionist systems where recombinant BK protein is studied in artificial lipid bilayers, which documents a direct inhibition of BK channel activity by CLR and builds a strong case for a direct interaction between CLR and the BK channel-forming protein. Bilayer lipid-mediated mechanisms in CLR action are also discussed. Finally, we review studies of BK channel function during hypercholesterolemia, and underscore the many consequences that the CLR-BK channel interaction brings to cell physiology and human disease.
Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.