Molecular dynamics study of Cl- permeation through cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR)

Cell Mol Life Sci. 2023 Jan 24;80(2):51. doi: 10.1007/s00018-022-04621-7.


The recent elucidation of atomistic structures of Cl- channel CFTR provides opportunities for understanding the molecular basis of cystic fibrosis. Despite having been activated through phosphorylation and provided with ATP ligands, several near-atomistic cryo-EM structures of CFTR are in a closed state, as inferred from the lack of a continuous passage through a hydrophobic bottleneck region located in the extracellular portion of the pore. Here, we present repeated, microsecond-long molecular dynamics simulations of human CFTR solvated in a lipid bilayer and aqueous NaCl. At equilibrium, Cl- ions enter the channel through a lateral intracellular portal and bind to two distinct cationic sites inside the channel pore but do not traverse the narrow, de-wetted bottleneck. Simulations conducted in the presence of a strong hyperpolarizing electric field led to spontaneous Cl- translocation events through the bottleneck region of the channel, suggesting that the protein relaxed to a functionally open state. Conformational changes of small magnitude involving transmembrane helices 1 and 6 preceded ion permeation through diverging exit routes at the extracellular end of the pore. The pore bottleneck undergoes wetting prior to Cl- translocation, suggesting that it acts as a hydrophobic gate. Although permeating Cl- ions remain mostly hydrated, partial dehydration occurs at the binding sites and in the bottleneck. The observed Cl- pathway is largely consistent with the loci of mutations that alter channel conductance, anion binding, and ion selectivity, supporting the model of the open state of CFTR obtained in the present study.

Keywords: ATP-binding cassette; Ion solvation; Membrane protein; Molecular mechanism; Pore hydration; Protein dynamics.

MeSH terms

  • Chlorides* / metabolism
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator* / metabolism
  • Cystic Fibrosis* / genetics
  • Humans
  • Ion Transport
  • Molecular Dynamics Simulation


  • CFTR protein, human
  • Chlorides
  • Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulator