Acid-sensing ion channels (ASICs) are thought to trigger some forms of acid-induced pain and taste, and to contribute to stroke-induced neural damage. After activation by low extracellular pH, different ASICs undergo desensitization on time scales from 0.1 to 10 s. Consistent with a substantial conformation change, desensitization slows dramatically when temperature drops (Askwith, C.C., C.J. Benson, M.J. Welsh, and P.M. Snyder. 2001. PNAS. 98:6459-6463). The nature of this conformation change is unknown, but two studies showed that desensitization rate is altered by mutations on or near the first transmembrane domain (TM1) (Coric, T., P. Zhang, N. Todorovic, and C.M. Canessa. 2003. J. Biol. Chem. 278:45240-45247; Pfister, Y., I. Gautschi, A.-N. Takeda, M. van Bemmelen, S. Kellenberger, and L. Schild. 2006. J. Biol. Chem. 281:11787-11791). Here we show evidence of a specific conformation change associated with desensitization. When mutated from glutamate to cysteine, residue 79, which is some 20 amino acids extracellular to TM1, can be altered by cysteine-modifying reagents when the channel is closed, but not when it is desensitized; thus, desensitization appears to conceal the residue from the extracellular medium. D78 and E79 are a pair of adjacent acidic amino acids that are highly conserved in ASICs yet absent from epithelial Na+ channels, their acid-insensitive relatives. Despite large effects on desensitization by mutations at positions 78 and 79 - including a shift to 10-fold lower proton concentration with the E79A mutant - there are not significant effects on activation.
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