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Most membrane proteins contain a transmembrane (TM) domain made up of a bundle of lipid-bilayer-spanning α-helices. TM α-helices are generally composed of a core of largely hydrophobic amino acids, with basic and aromatic amino acids at each end of the helix forming interactions with the lipid headgroups and water. In contrast, the S4 helix of ion channel voltage sensor (VS) domains contains four or five basic (largely arginine) side chains along its length and yet adopts a TM orientation as part of an independently stable VS domain. Multiscale molecular dynamics simulations are used to explore how a charged TM S4 α-helix may be stabilized in a lipid bilayer, which is of relevance in the context of mechanisms of translocon-mediated insertion of S4. Free-energy profiles for insertion of the S4 helix into a phospholipid bilayer suggest that it is thermodynamically favorable for S4 to insert from water to the center of the membrane, where the helix adopts a TM orientation. This is consistent with crystal structures of Kv channels, biophysical studies of isolated VS domains in lipid bilayers, and studies of translocon-mediated S4 helix insertion. Decomposition of the free-energy profiles reveals the underlying physical basis for TM stability, whereby the preference of the hydrophobic residues of S4 to enter the bilayer dominates over the free-energy penalty for inserting charged residues, accompanied by local distortion of the bilayer and penetration of waters. We show that the unique combination of charged and hydrophobic residues in S4 allows it to insert stably into the membrane.

Original publication




Journal article


Biophys J

Publication Date





410 - 419


Computer Simulation, Ion Channel Gating, Ion Channels, Lipid Bilayers, Membrane Proteins, Molecular Dynamics Simulation, Phospholipids, Protein Structure, Secondary, Thermodynamics, Water