Key points: Sodium channels are critical for supporting fast action potentials in neurons; even mutations which cause small changes in sodium channel activity can have devastating consequences for the function of the nervous system. Alternative splicing also changes the activity of sodium channels, and while it is highly conserved, it is not known whether the functional role of this splicing is also conserved. Our data reveal that splicing has a highly conserved impact on the availability of sodium channels during trains of rapid stimulations, and suggest that in one mammalian channel, Nav1.1 encoded by SCN1A, the increased availability of one splice variant is detrimental. A model reproducing the effects of splicing on channel behaviour suggests that the voltage sensor in the first domain is a rate limiting step for release of the inactivation domain, and highlights the functional specialization of channel domains.
Abstract: Voltage-gated sodium channels are critical for neuronal activity, and highly intolerant to variation. Even mutations that cause subtle changes in the activity these channels are sufficient to cause devastating inherited neurological diseases, such as epilepsy and pain. However, these channels do vary in healthy tissue. Alternative splicing modifies sodium channels, but the functional relevance and adaptive significance of this splicing remain poorly understood. Here we use a conserved alternate exon encoding part of the first domain of sodium channels to compare how splicing modifies different channels, and to ask whether the functional consequences of this splicing have been preserved in different genes. Although the splicing event is highly conserved, one splice variant has been selectively removed from Nav1.1 in multiple mammalian species, suggesting that the functional variation in Nav1.1 is less well tolerated. We show for three human channels (Nav1.1, Nav1.2 and Nav1.7) that splicing modifies the return from inactivated to deactivated states, and the differences between splice variants are occluded by antiepileptic drugs that bind to and stabilize inactivated states. A model based on structural data can replicate these changes, and indicates that splicing may exploit a distinct role of the first domain to change channel availability, and that the first domain of all three sodium channels plays a role in determining the rate at which the inactivation domain dissociates. Taken together, our data suggest that the stability of inactivated states is under tight evolutionary control, but that in Nav1.1 faster recovery from inactivation is associated with negative selection in mammals.
Keywords: SCN1A; alternative splicing; evolution; patch clamp; sodium channel.
© 2017 The Authors. The Journal of Physiology published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of The Physiological Society.