The limited sodium availability of freshwater and terrestrial environments was a major physiological challenge during vertebrate evolution. The epithelial sodium channel (ENaC) is present in the apical membrane of sodium-absorbing vertebrate epithelia and evolved as part of a machinery for efficient sodium conservation. ENaC belongs to the degenerin/ENaC protein family and is the only member that opens without an external stimulus. We hypothesized that ENaC evolved from a proton-activated sodium channel present in ionocytes of freshwater vertebrates and therefore investigated whether such ancestral traits are present in ENaC isoforms of the aquatic pipid frog Xenopus laevis Using whole-cell and single-channel electrophysiology of Xenopus oocytes expressing ENaC isoforms assembled from αβγ- or δβγ-subunit combinations, we demonstrate that Xenopus δβγ-ENaC is profoundly activated by extracellular acidification within biologically relevant ranges (pH 8.0-6.0). This effect was not observed in Xenopus αβγ-ENaC or human ENaC orthologs. We show that protons interfere with allosteric ENaC inhibition by extracellular sodium ions, thereby increasing the probability of channel opening. Using homology modeling of ENaC structure and site-directed mutagenesis, we identified a cleft region within the extracellular loop of the δ-subunit that contains several acidic amino acid residues that confer proton-sensitivity and enable allosteric inhibition by extracellular sodium ions. We propose that Xenopus δβγ-ENaC can serve as a model for investigating ENaC transformation from a proton-activated toward a constitutively-active ion channel. Such transformation might have occurred during the evolution of tetrapod vertebrates to enable bulk sodium absorption during the water-to-land transition.
Keywords: Xenopus; allosteric regulation; delta-subunit; epithelial sodium channel (ENaC); evolution; molecular evolution; pH; sodium self-inhibition; tetrapod; water–to–land transition.
© 2019 Wichmann et al.