The calcium-activated chloride channel TMEM16A is a member of a conserved protein family that comprises ion channels and lipid scramblases. Although the structure of the scramblase nhTMEM16 has defined the architecture of the family, it was unknown how a channel has adapted to cope with its distinct functional properties. Here we have addressed this question by the structure determination of mouse TMEM16A by cryo-electron microscopy and a complementary functional characterization. The protein shows a similar organization to nhTMEM16, except for changes at the site of catalysis. There, the conformation of transmembrane helices constituting a membrane-spanning furrow that provides a path for lipids in scramblases has changed to form an enclosed aqueous pore that is largely shielded from the membrane. Our study thus reveals the structural basis of anion conduction in a TMEM16 channel and it defines the foundation for the diverse functional behavior in the TMEM16 family.
Cell membranes are made up of two layers of oily molecules, called lipids, embedded with a variety of proteins. Each type of membrane protein carries out a particular activity for the cell, and many are involved in transporting other molecules from one side of the membrane to the other.
The TMEM16 proteins are a large family of membrane proteins. Most are known as lipid scramblases and move lipids between the two layers of the membrane. However, some TMEM16 proteins transport ions in or out of the cell, and are instead called ion channels. TMEM16 proteins are found in animals, plants and fungi but not bacteria, and play key roles in many biological activities that keep these organisms alive. For example, in humans, ion channels belonging to the TMEM16 family help keep the lining of the lung moist, and allow muscles in the gut to contract.
The structure of a scramblase shows that two protein units interact, with each unit containing a furrow that spans the membrane, through which lipids can move from one layer to the other. However, to date, the shape of a TMEM16 ion channel has not been determined. It was therefore not clear how a protein with features that let it transport large, oily molecules like lipids had evolved to transport small, charged particles instead.
TMEM16A is a member of the TMEM16 family that transports negatively charged chloride ions. Using a technique called cryo-electron microscopy, Paulino et al. have determined the three-dimensional shape of the version of TMEM16A from a mouse. Overall, TMEM16A is organized similarly to the lipid scramblase. However, some parts of the TMEM16A protein have undergone rearrangements such that the membrane-exposed furrow that provides a path for lipids in scramblases is now partially sealed in TMEM16A. This results in an enclosed pore that is largely shielded from the oily membrane and through which ions can pass. Additionally, biochemical analysis suggests that TMEM16A forms a narrow pore that may widen towards the side facing the inside of the cell, though further work is needed to understand if this is relevant to the protein’s activity.
The three-dimensional structure of TMEM16A reveals how the protein’s architecture differs from other family members working as lipid scramblases. It also gives insight into how TMEM16 proteins might work as ion channels. These findings can now form a strong basis for future studies into the activity of TMEM16 proteins.