A kinetic mechanism for enhanced selectivity of membrane transport

Paola Bisignano, Michael A. Lee, August George, Daniel M. Zuckerman, Michael Grabe, John M. Rosenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Membrane transport is generally thought to occur via an alternating access mechanism in which the transporter adopts at least two states, accessible from two different sides of the membrane to exchange substrates from the extracellular environment and the cytoplasm or from the cytoplasm and the intracellular matrix of the organelles (only in eukaryotes). In recent years, a number of high resolution structures have supported this general framework for a wide class of transport molecules, although additional states along the transport pathway are emerging as critically important. Given that substrate binding is often weak in order to enhance overall transport rates, there exists the distinct possibility that transporters may transport the incorrect substrate. This is certainly the case for many pharmaceutical compounds that are absorbed in the gut or cross the blood brain barrier through endogenous transporters. Docking studies on the bacterial sugar transporter vSGLT reveal that many highly toxic compounds are compatible with binding to the orthosteric site, further motivating the selective pressure for additional modes of selectivity. Motivated by recent work in which we observed failed substrate delivery in a molecular dynamics simulation where the energized ion still goes down its concentration gradient, we hypothesize that some transporters evolved to harness this ‘slip’ mechanism to increase substrate selectivity and reduce the uptake of toxic molecules. Here, we test this idea by constructing and exploring a kinetic transport model that includes a slip pathway. While slip reduces the overall productive flux, when coupled with a second toxic molecule that is more prone to slippage, the overall substrate selectivity dramatically increases, suppressing the accumulation of the incorrect compound. We show that the mathematical framework for increased substrate selectivity in our model is analogous to the classic proofreading mechanism originally proposed for tRNA synthase; however, because the transport cycle is reversible we identified conditions in which the selectivity is essentially infinite and incorrect substrates are exported from the cell in a ‘detoxification’ mode. The cellular consequences of proofreading and membrane slippage are discussed as well as the impact on future drug development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere1007789
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience
  • Computational Theory and Mathematics


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