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Molecular force transduction by ion channels – diversity and unifying principles
Sergei Sukharev, Frederick Sachs


Cells perceive force through a variety of molecular sensors, of which the mechanosensitive ion channels are the most efficient and act the fastest. These channels apparently evolved to prevent osmotic lysis of the cell as a result of metabolite accumulation and/or external changes in osmolarity. From this simple beginning, nature developed specific mechanosensitive enzymes that allow us to hear, maintain balance, feel touch and regulate many systemic variables, such as blood pressure. For a channel to be mechanosensitive it needs to respond to mechanical stresses by changing its shape between the closed and open states. In that way, forces within the lipid bilayer or within a protein link can do work on the channel and stabilize its state. Ion channels have the highest turnover rates of all enzymes, and they can act as both sensors and effectors, providing the necessary fluxes to relieve osmotic pressure, shift the membrane potential or initiate chemical signaling. In this Commentary, we focus on the common mechanisms by which mechanical forces and the local environment can regulate membrane protein structure, and more specifically, mechanosensitive ion channels.


  • Funding

    The work of the authors' laboratories is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health [grant numbers NS039314, GM075225 to S.S.]; and the United States Department of Defense, National Institutes of Health and Children's Guild of Buffalo to F.S. Deposited in PMC for release after 12 months.

  • This article is part of a Minifocus on Mechanotransduction. For further reading, please see related articles: ‘Deconstructing the third dimension – how 3D culture microenvironments alter cellular cues’ by Brendon M. Baker and Christopher S. Chen (J. Cell Sci. 125, 3015-3024). ‘Finding the weakest link – exploring integrin-mediated mechanical molecular pathways’ by Pere Roca-Cusachs et al. (J. Cell Sci. 125, 3025-3038). ‘Signalling through mechanical inputs – a coordinated process’ by Huimin Zhang and Michel Labouesse (J. Cell Sci. 125, 3039-3049). ‘United we stand – integrating the actin cytoskeleton and cell–matrix adhesions in cellular mechanotransduction’ by Ulrich S. Schwarz and Margaret L. Gardel (J. Cell Sci. 125, 3051-3060). ‘Mechanosensitive mechanisms in transcriptional regulation’ by Akiko Mammoto et al. (J. Cell Sci. 125, 3061-3073).

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