Falzone et al. interpret the mechanisms underlying the activity of TMEM16 family members from recent structural and functional work.
The TMEM16 family of membrane proteins is composed of both Ca 2+-gated Cl − channels and Ca 2+-dependent phospholipid scramblases. The functional diversity of TMEM16s underlies their involvement in numerous signal transduction pathways that connect changes in cytosolic Ca 2+ levels to cellular signaling networks. Indeed, defects in the function of several TMEM16s cause a variety of genetic disorders, highlighting their fundamental pathophysiological importance. Here, we review how our mechanistic understanding of TMEM16 function has been shaped by recent functional and structural work. Remarkably, the recent determination of near-atomic-resolution structures of TMEM16 proteins of both functional persuasions has revealed how relatively minimal rearrangements in the substrate translocation pathway are sufficient to precipitate the dramatic functional differences that characterize the family. These structures, when interpreted in the light of extensive functional analysis, point to an unusual mechanism for Ca 2+-dependent activation of TMEM16 proteins in which substrate permeation is regulated by a combination of conformational rearrangements and electrostatics. These breakthroughs pave the way to elucidate the mechanistic bases of ion and lipid transport by the TMEM16 proteins and unravel the molecular links between these transport activities and their function in human pathophysiology.