Placed in the cell membrane (a two-dimensional environment), ion channels and enzymes are able to sense voltage. How these proteins are able to detect the difference in the voltage across membranes has attracted much attention, and at times, heated debate during the last few years. Sodium, Ca2+ and K+ voltage-dependent channels have a conserved positively charged transmembrane (S4) segment that moves in response to changes in membrane voltage. In voltage-dependent channels, S4 forms part of a domain that crystallizes as a well-defined structure consisting of the first four transmembrane (S1-S4) segments of the channel-forming protein, which is defined as the voltage sensor domain (VSD). The VSD is tied to a pore domain and VSD movements are allosterically coupled to the pore opening to various degrees, depending on the type of channel. How many charges are moved during channel activation, how much they move, and which are the molecular determinants that mediate the electromechanical coupling between the VSD and the pore domains are some of the questions that we discuss here. The VSD can function, however, as a bona fide proton channel itself, and, furthermore, the VSD can also be a functional part of a voltage-dependent phosphatase.
Keywords: BK channels; Cav Channels; Kv channels; Proton channels and VSP; Voltage sensor.