Tag Archives: ion channel

The bouillabaisse of the synaptic cleft

The synaptic cleft is so small ( under 400 Angstroms — 40 nanoMeters ) that it can’t be seen with the light microscope ( the smallest wavelength of visible light 3,900 Angstroms — 390 nanoMeters).  This led to a bruising battle between Cajal and Golgi a just over a century ago over whether the brain was actually made of cells.  Even though Golgi’s work led to the delineation of single neurons he thought the brain was a continuous network.  They both won the Nobel in 1906.

Semifast forward to the mid 60s when I was in medical school.  We finally had the electron microscope, so we could see synapses. They showed up as a small CLEAR spaces (e.g. electrons passed through it easily leaving it white) between neurons.  Neurotransmitters were being discovered at the same time and the synapse was to be the analogy to vacuum tubes, which could pass electricity in just one direction (yes, the transistor although invented hadn’t been used to make anything resembling a computer — the Intel 4004 wasn’t until the 70s).  Of course now we know that information flows back and forth across the synapse, with endocannabinoids (e. g. natural marihuana) being the major retrograde neurotransmitter.

Since there didn’t seem to be anything in the synaptic cleft, neurotransmitters were thought to freely diffuse across it to being to receptors on the other (postsynaptic) side e.g. a free fly zone.

Fast forward to the present to a marvelous (and grueling to read because of the complexity of the subject not the way it’s written) review of just what is in the synaptic cleft [ Cell vol. 171 pp. 745 – 769 ’17 ] http://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(17)31246-1 (It is likely behind a paywall).  There are over 120 references, and rather than being just a catalogue, the single author Thomas Sudhof extensively discusseswhich experimental work is to be believed (not that Sudhof  is saying the work is fraudulent, but that it can’t be used to extrapolate to the living human brain).  The review is a staggering piece of work for one individual.

The stuff in the synaptic cleft is so diverse, and so intimately involved with itself and the membranes on either side what what is needed for comprehension is not a chemist but a sociologist.  Probably most of the molecules to be discussed are present in such small numbers that the law of mass action doesn’t apply, nor do binding constants which rely on large numbers of ligands and receptors. Not only that, but the binding constants haven’t been been determined for many of the players.

Now for some anatomic detail and numbers.  It is remarkably hard to find just how far laterally the synaptic cleft extends.  Molecular Biology of the Cell ed. 5 p. 1149 has a fairly typical picture with a size marker and it looks to be about 2 microns (20,000 Angstroms, 2,000 nanoMeters) — that’s 314,159,265 square Angstroms (3.14 square microns).  So let’s assume each protein takes up a square 50 Angstroms on a side (2,500 square Angstroms).  That’s room for 125,600 proteins on each side assuming extremely dense packing.  However the density of acetyl choline receptors at the neuromuscular junction is 8,700/square micron, a packing also thought to be extremely dense which would give only 26,100 such proteins in a similarly distributed CNS synapse. So the numbers are at least in the right ball park (meaning they’re within an order of magnitude e.g. within a power of 10) of being correct.

What’s the point?

When you see how many different proteins and different varieties of the same protein reside in the cleft, the numbers for  each individual element is likely to be small, meaning that you can’t use statistical mechanics but must use sociology instead.

The review focuses on the neurExins (I capitalize the E  to help me remember that they are prEsynaptic).  Why?  Because they are the best studied of all the players.  What a piece of work they are.  Humans have 3 genes for them. One of the 3 contains 1,477 amino acids, spread over 1,112,187 basepairs (1.1 megaBases) along with 74 exons.  This means that just over 1/10 of a percent of the gene is actually coding for for the amino acids making it up.  I think it takes energy for RNA polymerase II to stitch the ribonucleotides into the 1.1 megabase pre-mRNA, but I couldn’t (quickly) find out how much per ribonucleotide.  It seems quite wasteful of energy, unless there is some other function to the process which we haven’t figured out yet.

Most of the molecule resides in the synaptic cleft.  There are 6 LNS domains with 3 interspersed EGFlike repeats, a cysteine loop domain, a transmembrane region and a cytoplasmic sequence of 55 amino acids. There are 6 sites for alternative splicing, and because there are two promoters for each of the 3 genes, there is a shorter form (beta neurexin) with less extracellular stuff than the long form (alpha-neurexin).  When all is said and done there are over 1,000 possible variants of the 3 genes.

Unlike olfactory neurons which only express one or two of the nearly 1,000 olfactory receptors, neurons express mutiple isoforms of each, increasing the complexity.

The LNS regions of the neurexins are like immunoglobulins and fill at 60 x 60 x 60 Angstrom box.  Since the synaptic cleft is at most 400 Angstroms long, the alpha -neurexins (if extended) reach all the way across.

Here the neurexins bind to the neuroligins which are always postsynaptic — sorry no mnemonic.  They are simpler in structure, but they are the product of 4 genes, and only about 40 isoforms (due to alternative splicing) are possible. Neuroligns 1, 3 and 4 are found at excitatory synapses, neuroligin 2 is found at inhibitory synapses.  The intracleft part of the neuroligins resembles an important enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) but which is catalytically inactive.  This is where the neurexins.

This is complex enough, but Sudhof notes that the neurexins are hubs interacting with multiple classes of post-synaptic molecules, in addition to the neuroligins — dystroglycan, GABA[A] receptors, calsystenins, latrophilins (of which there are 4).   There are at least 50 post-synaptic cell adhesion molecules — “Few are well understood, although many are described.”

The neurexins have 3 major sites where other things bind, and all sites may be occupied at once.  Just to give you a taste of he complexity involved (before I go on to  larger issues).

The second LNS domain (LNS2)is found only in the alpha-neurexins, and binds to neuroexophilin (of which there are 4) and dystroglycan .

The 6th LNS domain (LNS6) binds to neuroligins, LRRTMs, GABA[A] receptors, cerebellins and latrophilins (of which there are 4)_

The juxtamembrane sequence of the neurexins binds to CA10, CA11 and C1ql.

The cerebellins (of which there are 4) bind to all the neurexins (of a particular splice variety) and interestingly to some postsynaptic glutamic acid receptors.  So there is a direct chain across the synapse from neurexin to cerebellin to ion channel (GLuD1, GLuD2).

There is far more to the review. But here is something I didn’t see there.  People have talked about proton wires — sites on proteins that allow protons to jump from one site to another, and move much faster than they would if they had to bump into everything in solution.  Remember that molecules are moving quite rapidly — water is moving at 590 meters a second at room temperature. Since the synaptic cleft is 40 nanoMeters (40 x 10^-9 meters, it should take only 40 * 10^-9 meters/ 590 meters/second   60 trillionths of a second (60 picoSeconds) to cross, assuming the synapse is a free fly zone — but it isn’t as the review exhaustively shows.

It it possible that the various neurotransmitters at the synapse (glutamic acid, gamma amino butyric acid, etc) bind to the various proteins crossing the cleft to get their target in the postsynaptic membrane (e.g. neurotransmitter wires).  I didn’t see any mention of neurotransmitter binding to  the various proteins in the review.  This may actually be an original idea.

I’d like to put more numbers on many of these things, but they are devilishly hard to find.  Both the neuroligins and neurexins are said to have stalks pushing them out from the membrane, but I can’t find how many amino acids they contain.  It can’t find how much energy it takes to copy the 1.1 megabase neurexin gene in to mRNA (or even how much energy it takes to add one ribonucleotide to an existing mRNA chain).

Another point– proteins have a finite lifetime.  How are they replenished?  We know that there is some synaptic protein synthesis — does the cell body send packages of mRNAs to the synapse to be translated there.  There are at least 50 different proteins mentioned in the review, and don’t forget the thousands of possible isoforms, each of which requires a separate mRNA.

Old Chinese saying — the mountains are high and the emperor is far away. Protein synthesis at the synaptic cleft is probably local.  How what gets made and when is an entirely different problem.

A large part of the review concerns mutations in all these proteins associated with neurologic disease (particularly autism).  This whole area has a long and checkered history.  A high degree of cynicism is needed before believing that any of these mutations are causative.  As a neurologist dealing with epilepsy I saw the whole idea of ion channel mutations causing epilepsy crash and burn — here’s a link — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/we’ve-found-the-mutation-causing-your-disease-not-so-fast-says-this-paper/

Once again, hats off to Dr. Sudhof for what must have been a tremendous amount of work

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Now we know why hot food tastes differently

An absolutely brilliant piece of physical chemistry explained a puzzling biologic phenomenon that organic chemistry was powerless to illuminate.

First, a fair amount of background

Ion channels are proteins present in the cell membrane of all our cells, but in neurons they are responsible for the maintenance of a membrane potential across the membrane, which has the ability change abruptly causing an nerve cell to fire an impulse. Functionally, ligand activated ion channels are pretty easy to understand. A chemical binds to them and they open and the neuron fires (or a muscle contracts — same thing). The channels don’t let everything in, just particular ions. Thus one type of channel which binds acetyl choline lets in sodium (not potassium, not calcium) which causes the cell to fire impulses. The GABA[A] receptor (the ion channel for gamma amino butyric acid) lets in chloride ions (and little else) which inhibits the neuron carrying it from firing. (This is why the benzodiazepines and barbiturates are anticonvulsants).

Since ion channels are full of amino acids, some of which have charged side chains, it’s easy to see how a change in electrical potential across the cell membrane could open or shut them.

By the way, the potential is huge although it doesn’t seem like much. It is usually given as 70 milliVolts (inside negatively charged, outside positively charged). Why is this a big deal? Because the electric field across our membranes is huge. 70 x 10^-3 volts is only 70 milliVolts. The cell membrane is quite thin — just 70 Angstroms. This is 7 nanoMeters (7 x 10^-9) meters. Divide 7 x 10^-3 volts by 7 x 10^-9 and you get a field of 10,000,000 Volts/meter.

Now for the main course. We easily sense hot and cold. This is because we have a bunch of different ion channels which open in response to different temperatures. All this without neurotransmitters binding to them, or changes in electric potential across the membrane.

People had searched for some particular sequence of amino acids common to the channels to no avail (this is the failure of organic chemistry).

In a brilliant paper, entropy was found to be the culprit. Chemists are used to considering entropy effects (primarily on reaction kinetics, but on equilibria as well). What happens is that in the open state a large number of hydrophobic amino acids are exposed to the extracellular space. To accommodate them (e.g. to solvate them), water around them must be more ordered, decreasing entropy. This, of course, is why oil and water don’t mix.

As all the chemists among us should remember, the equilibrium constant has components due to kinetic energy (e.g. heat, e.g. enthalpy) and due to entropy.

The entropy term must be multiplied by the temperature, which is where the temperature sensitivity of the equilibrium constant (in this case open channel/closed channel) comes in. Remember changes in entropy and enthalpy work in opposite directions —

delta G(ibbs free energy) = delta H (enthalpy) T * delta S (entropy

Here’s the paper [ Cell vol. 158 pp. 977 – 979, 1148 1158 ’14 ] They note that if a large number of buried hydrophobic groups become exposed to water on a conformational change in the ion channel, an increased heat capacity should be produced due to water ordering to solvate the hydrophobic side chains. This should confer a strong temperature dependence on the equilibrium constant for the reaction. Exposing just 20 hydrophobic side chains in a tetrameric channel should do the trick. The side chains don’t have to be localized in a particular area (which is why organic chemists and biochemists couldn’t find a stretch of amino acids conferring cold or heat sensitivity — it didn’t matter where the hydrophobic amino acids were, as long as there were enough of them, somewhere).

In some way this entwines enthalpy and entropy making temperature dependent activation U shaped rather than monotonic. So such a channel is in principle both hot activated and cold activated, with the position of the U along the temperature axis determining which activation mode is seen at experimentally accessible temperatures.

All very nice, but how many beautiful theories have we seen get crushed by ugly facts. If they really understood what is going on with temperature sensitivity, they should be able to change a cold activated ion channel to a heat activated one (by mutating it). If they really, really understood things, they should be able to take a run of the mill temperature INsensitive ion channel and make it temperature sensitive. Amazingly, the authors did just that.

Impressive. Read the paper.

This harks back to the days when theories of organic reaction mechanisms were tested by building molecules to test them. When you made a molecule that no one had seen before and predicted how it would react you knew you were on to something.

Is concentration meaningful in a nanoDomain? A Nobel is no guarantee against chemical idiocy

The chemist can be excused for not knowing what a nanodomain is. They are beloved by neuroscientists, and defined as the part of the neuron directly under an ion channel in the neuronal membrane. Ion flows in and out of ion channels are crucial to the workings of the nervous system. Tetrodotoxin, which blocks one of them, is 100 times more poisonous than cyanide. 25 milliGrams (roughly 1/3 of a baby aspirin) will kill you.

Nanodomains are quite small, and Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 110 pp. 15794 – 15799 ’13 defines them as hemispheres having a radius of 10 nanoMeters from channel (a nanoMeter is 10^-9 meter — I want to get everyone on board for what follows, I’m not trying to insult your intelligence). The paper talks about measuring concentrations of calcium ions in such a nanodomain. Previous work by a Nobelist (Neher) came up with 100 microMolar elevations of calcium in nanodomains when one of the channels was opened. Yes, evolution has produced ion channels permeable to calcium and not much else, sodium and not much else, potassium and not much else. For details read the papers of Roderick MacKinnon (another Nobelist). The mechanisms behind this selectivity are incredibly elegant — and I can tell you that no one figured out just what they were until we had the actual structures of channels in hand. As chemists you’re sure to get a kick out of them.

The neuroscientist (including Neher the Nobelist) cannot be excused for not understanding the concept of concentration and its limits.

So at a concentration of 100 microMolar (10^-4 molar) how many calcium ions does a nanoDomain contain? Well a liter has 1000 milliliters and each milliliter is 1 cubic centimeter (cc.). So each cubic centimeter is 10^7 nanoMeters on a side, giving it a volume of 10^21 cubic nanoMeters. How many cubic nanoMeters are in a hemisphere of radius 10 nanoMeters — it’s 1/2 * 4/3 * pi * 10^3 = 2095. So there are (roughly) 5 * 10^17 such hemispheres in each cc.

How many ions are in a cc. of a 1 molar solution of calcium — 6 * 10^21 (Avogadro’s #/1000). How many in a 10^-4 molar solution (100 microMolar) — 6 * 10^17. How many calcium ions in a nanoDomain at this concentration? Just (6 * 10^17)/(5 * 10^17) e.g. just over one ion/nanodomain.

Does any chemist out there think that speaking of a 100 microMolar concentration in a volume this small is meaningful? I’d love to be shown how my calculation is wrong, if anyone would care to post a comment.

They do talk about nanodomains of radius 30 nanoMeters, which still would result in under 10 calcium ions/nanoDomain.

Addendum 10 Oct ’13

My face is red ! ! ! “6 * 10^21 (Avogadro’s #/1000)” should be 6 * 10^20 (Avogadro’s #/1000), making everything worse. Here’s how the paragraph should read.

How many ions are in a cc. of a 1 molar solution of calcium — 6 * 10^20 (Avogadro’s #/1000). How many in a 10^-4 molar solution (100 microMolar) — 6 * 10^16. How many calcium ions in a nanoDomain at this concentration? Just (6 * 10^16)/(5 * 10^17) e.g. just over .1 ion/nanodomain. As Bishop Berkeley would say this is the ghost a departed ion.

Even if we increased the size of the nanoDomain by an order of magnitude (making it a hemisphere of 100 nanoMeters radius), this would give us just over 10 ions/nanodomain.