The molecules of mechanosensation

Annu Rev Neurosci. 1997;20:567-94. doi: 10.1146/annurev.neuro.20.1.567.


Mechanosensation, the transduction of mechanical forces into a cellular electrochemical signal, enables living organisms to detect touch; vibrations, such as sound; accelerations, including gravity; body movements; and changes in cellular volume and shape. Ion channels directly activated by mechanical tension are thought to mediate mechanosensation in many systems. Only one channel has been cloned that is unequivocably mechanically gated: the MscL channel in bacteria. Genetic screens for touch-insensitive nematodes or flies promise to identify the proteins that constitute a mechanosensory apparatus in eukaryotes. In Caenorhabditis elegans, the mec genes thus identified encode molecules for a candidate structure, which includes a "degenerin" channel tethered to specialized extracellular and intracellular structural proteins. In hair cells of the inner ear, evidence suggests that an extracellular tip link pulls on a channel, which attached intracellularly to actin via a tension-regulating myosin 1beta. The channel and the tip link have not been cloned. Because degenerins and MscL homologs have not been found outside of nematodes and prokaryotes, respectively, and because intracellular and extracellular accessory structures apparently differ among organs and species, it may be that mechanosensory channel complexes evolved multiple times.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Mechanoreceptors / metabolism*
  • Mechanoreceptors / physiology*
  • Neurons, Afferent / metabolism
  • Neurons, Afferent / physiology*