The proton-gated ion channel from Gloeobacter violaceus (GLIC) is a prokaryotic homolog of the eukaryotic nicotinic acetylcholine receptor that responds to the binding of neurotransmitter acetylcholine and mediates fast signal transmission. Recent emergence of a high-resolution crystal structure of GLIC captured in a potentially open state allowed detailed, atomiclevel insight into ion conduction and selectivity mechanisms in these channels. Herein, we have examined the barriers to ion conduction and origins of ion selectivity in the GLIC channel by the construction of potential-of-mean-force profiles for sodium and chloride ions inside the transmembrane region. Our calculations reveal that the GLIC channel is open for a sodium ion to transport, but presents a ∼11 kcal/mol free energy barrier for a chloride ion. Our collective findings identify three distinct contributions to the observed preference for the permeant ions. First, there is a substantial contribution due to a ring of negatively charged glutamate residues (E-2') at the narrow intracellular end of the channel. The negative electrostatics of this region and the ability of the glutamate side chains to directly bind cations would strongly favor the passage of sodium ions while hindering translocation of chloride ions. Second, our results imply a significant hydrophobic contribution to selectivity linked to differences in the desolvation penalty for the sodium versus chloride ions in the central hydrophobic region of the pore. This hydrophobic contribution is evidenced by the large free energy barriers experienced by Cr in the middle of the pore for both GLIC and the E-2'A mutant. Finally, there is a distinct contribution arising from the overall negative electrostatics of the channel.
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