The membrane-bound sodium-calcium exchanger (NCX) proteins shape Ca2+ homeostasis in many cell types, thus participating in a wide range of physiological and pathological processes. Determination of the crystal structure of an archaeal NCX (NCX_Mj) paved the way for a thorough and systematic investigation of ion transport mechanisms in NCX proteins. Here, we review the data gathered from the X-ray crystallography, molecular dynamics simulations, hydrogen-deuterium exchange mass-spectrometry (HDX-MS), and ion-flux analyses of mutants. Strikingly, the apo NCX_Mj protein exhibits characteristic patterns in the local backbone dynamics at particular helix segments, thereby possessing characteristic HDX profiles, suggesting structure-dynamic preorganization (geometric arrangements of catalytic residues before the transition state) of conserved α₁ and α₂ repeats at ion-coordinating residues involved in transport activities. Moreover, dynamic preorganization of local structural entities in the apo protein predefines the status of ion-occlusion and transition states, even though Na⁺ or Ca2+ binding modifies the preceding backbone dynamics nearby functionally important residues. Future challenges include resolving the structural-dynamic determinants governing the ion selectivity, functional asymmetry and ion-induced alternating access. Taking into account the structural similarities of NCX_Mj with the other proteins belonging to the Ca2+/cation exchanger superfamily, the recent findings can significantly improve our understanding of ion transport mechanisms in NCX and similar proteins.
Keywords: HDX-MS (hydrogen–deuterium exchange mass-spectrometry); NCX (sodium–calcium exchanger); alternating access; antiporter; catalysis; occlusion; selectivity; transporter.