Brain functions rely on neurotransmitters that mediate communication between billions of neurons. Disruption of this communication can result in a plethora of psychiatric and neurological disorders. In this work, we combine molecular dynamics simulations, live-cell biosensor and electrophysiological assays to investigate the action of the neurotransmitter dopamine at the dopaminergic D2 receptor (D2R). The study of dopamine and closely related chemical probes reveals how neurotransmitter binding translates into the activation of distinct subsets of D2R effectors (i.e.: Gi2, GoB, Gz and β-arrestin 2). Ligand interactions with key residues in TM5 (S5.42) and TM6 (H6.55) in the D2R binding pocket yield a dopamine-like coupling signature, whereas exclusive TM5 interaction is typically linked to preferential G protein coupling (in particular GoB) over β-arrestin. Further experiments for serotonin receptors indicate that the reported molecular mechanism is shared by other monoaminergic neurotransmitter receptors. Ultimately, our study highlights how sequence variation in position 6.55 is used by nature to fine-tune β-arrestin recruitment and in turn receptor signaling and internalization of neurotransmitter receptors.
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