A Molecular Determinant of Subtype-Specific Desensitization in Ionotropic Glutamate Receptors

J Neurosci. 2016 Mar 2;36(9):2617-22. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2667-15.2016.


AMPA and NMDA receptors are glutamate-gated ion channels that mediate fast excitatory synaptic transmission throughout the nervous system. In the continual presence of glutamate, AMPA and NMDA receptors containing the GluN2A or GluN2B subunit enter into a nonconducting, desensitized state that can impact synaptic responses and glutamate-mediated excitotoxicity. The process of desensitization is dramatically different between subtypes, but the basis for these differences is unknown. We generated an extensive sequence alignment of ionotropic glutamate receptors (iGluRs) from diverse animal phyla and identified a highly conserved motif, which we termed the "hydrophobic box," located at the extracellular interface of transmembrane helices. A single position in the hydrophobic box differed between mammalian AMPA and NMDA receptors. Surprisingly, we find that an NMDAR-to-AMPAR exchange mutation at this position in the rat GluN2A or GluN2B subunit had a dramatic and highly specific effect on NMDAR desensitization, making it AMPAR-like. In contrast, a reverse exchange mutation in AMPARs had minimal effects on desensitization. These experiments highlight differences in desensitization between iGluR subtypes and the highly specific contribution of the GluN2 subunit to this process.

Significance statement: Rapid communication between cells in the nervous system depends on ion channels that are directly activated by neurotransmitter molecules. Here, we studied ionotropic glutamate receptors (iGluRs), which are ion channels activated by the neurotransmitter glutamate. By comparing the sequences of a vast number of iGluR proteins from diverse animal species, assisted by available structural information, we identified a highly conserved motif. We showed that a single amino acid difference in this motif between mammalian iGluR subtypes has dramatic effects on receptor function. These results have implications in both the evolution of synaptic function, as well as the role of iGluRs in health and disease.

Keywords: AMPA receptors; NMDA receptors; gating; sequence alignments; structures.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biophysical Phenomena
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Glutamic Acid / pharmacology
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / genetics
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins / metabolism*
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Membrane Potentials / drug effects
  • Membrane Potentials / genetics
  • Mutagenesis / genetics*
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Patch-Clamp Techniques
  • Protein Subunits / genetics
  • Protein Subunits / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Ionotropic Glutamate / chemistry
  • Receptors, Ionotropic Glutamate / classification
  • Receptors, Ionotropic Glutamate / genetics*
  • Receptors, Ionotropic Glutamate / metabolism
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Transfection


  • Protein Subunits
  • Receptors, Ionotropic Glutamate
  • Green Fluorescent Proteins
  • Glutamic Acid