We provide a theory for employing Förster resonance energy transfer (FRET) measurements to determine altered heteropentameric ion channel stoichiometries in intracellular compartments of living cells. We simulate FRET within nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) whose α4 and β2 subunits contain acceptor and donor fluorescent protein moieties, respectively, within the cytoplasmic loops. We predict FRET and normalized FRET (NFRET) for the two predominant stoichiometries, (α4)(3)(β2)(2)vs. (α4)(2)(β2)(3). Studying the ratio between FRET or NFRET for the two stoichiometries, minimizes distortions due to various photophysical uncertainties. Within a range of assumptions concerning the distance between fluorophores, deviations from plane pentameric geometry, and other asymmetries, the predicted FRET and NFRET for (α4)(3)(β2)(2) exceeds that of (α4)(2)(β2)(3). The simulations account for published data on transfected Neuro2a cells in which α4β2 stoichiometries were manipulated by varying fluorescent subunit cDNA ratios: NFRET decreased monotonically from (α4)(3)(β2)(2) stoichiometry to mostly (α4)(2)(β2)(3). The simulations also account for previous macroscopic and single-channel observations that pharmacological chaperoning by nicotine and cytisine increase the (α4)(2)(β2)(3) and (α4)(3)(β2)(2) populations, respectively. We also analyze sources of variability. NFRET-based monitoring of changes in subunit stoichiometry can contribute usefully to studies on Cys-loop receptors.
Keywords: NFRET; Parkinson’s disease; cytisine; ion channels; nicotine; nicotine addiction.