Water, Protons, and the Gating of Voltage-Gated Potassium Channels

Membranes (Basel). 2024 Jan 29;14(2):37. doi: 10.3390/membranes14020037.


Ion channels are ubiquitous throughout all forms of life. Potassium channels are even found in viruses. Every cell must communicate with its surroundings, so all cells have them, and excitable cells, in particular, especially nerve cells, depend on the behavior of these channels. Every channel must be open at the appropriate time, and only then, so that each channel opens in response to the stimulus that tells that channel to open. One set of channels, including those in nerve cells, responds to voltage. There is a standard model for the gating of these channels that has a section of the protein moving in response to the voltage. However, there is evidence that protons are moving, rather than protein. Water is critical as part of the gating process, although it is hard to see how this works in the standard model. Here, we review the extensive evidence of the importance of the role of water and protons in gating these channels. Our principal example, but by no means the only example, will be the Kv1.2 channel. Evidence comes from the effects of D2O, from mutations in the voltage sensing domain, as well as in the linker between that domain and the gate, and at the gate itself. There is additional evidence from computations, especially quantum calculations. Structural evidence comes from X-ray studies. The hydration of ions is critical in the transfer of ions in constricted spaces, such as the gate region and the pore of a channel; we will see how the structure of the hydrated ion fits with the structure of the channel. In addition, there is macroscopic evidence from osmotic experiments and streaming current measurements. The combined evidence is discussed in the context of a model that emphasizes the role of protons and water in gating these channels.

Keywords: ion channel voltage gating; ion hydration; proton wire; protons; water.

Publication types

  • Review

Grants and funding

Funding is provided through the Foundation for the City College from funds provided by MEG.