Glutamate Receptor Ion Channels

We are interested in structure-function relationship in the AMPA-receptor subfamily of glutamate receptor ion channels, which are found in the postsynaptic membrane and are responsible for most fast excitatory cell-to-cell communication in the central nervous system. After binding to neurotransmitter released from the presynaptic membrane, they open to conduct cation fluxes that depolarize the membrane and stimulate the receiving cell to fire. The channels then spontaneously close ("desensitize"). The kinetics and magnitude of the current can be fine-tuned to cellular requirements by controlling the nature and identity of the glutamate receptor subunits expressed. We wish to understand this complicated molecular machine at the atomic level. Research projects include:

Stereochemistry and thermodynamics of ligand binding:
Published crystallographic data from other groups have shown that agonist binding is associated with a Venus-flytrap style cleft closure in the glutamate receptor. How does the interaction and cleft closure proceed? To understand the exact sequence of molecular events, we have combined site-directed mutagenesis with fluorescence spectroscopy to follow the kinetics of agonist association, leading to a model in which rapid docking to one side of the open cleft is followed by cleft closure and trapping of ligand. We also use small-angle X-ray techniques to follow the conformational dynamics of the LBD in solution. Finally, we have crystallized LBD constructs from additional AMPA-R subunits, revealing additional conformational contributions to channel activation.

Molecular Architecture of AMPA-Receptors:
Although conformational changes in the LBD have been studied in great detail, little is known about how the LBD are assembled to form a molecular machine that can activate the associated ion channel. We have developed a robust expression system for the purification of intact AMPA-R and use electron microscopy to study the structure of these channels.