Detection of chemical processes on a single molecule scale is the ultimate goal of sensitive analytical assays. We recently reported the possibility to detect chemical modifications on individual molecules by monitoring a change in the single ion channel conductance of derivatives of gramicidin A (gA) upon reaction with analytes in solution. These peptide-based nanosensors detect reaction-induced changes in the charge of gA derivatives that were engineered to carry specific functional groups near their C-terminus.1 Here, we discuss five key design parameters to optimize the performance of such chemomodulated ion channel sensors. In order to realize an effective sensor that measures changes in charge of groups attached to the C-terminus of a gA pore, the following conditions should be fulfilled: (1) the change in charge should occur as close to the entrance of the pore as possible; (2) the charge before and after reaction should be well-defined within the operational pH range; (3) the ionic strength of the recording buffer should be as low as possible while maintaining a detectable flow of ions through the pore; (4) the applied transmembrane voltage should be as high as possible while maintaining a stable membrane; (5) the lipids in the supporting membrane should either be zwitterionic or charged differently than the derivative of gA. We show that under the condition of high applied transmembrane potential (>100 mV) and low ionic strength of the recording buffer (< or =0.10 M), a change in charge at the entrance of the pore is the dominant requirement to distinguish between two differently charged derivatives of gA; the conductance of the heterodimeric gA pore reported here does not depend on a difference in charge at the exit of the pore. We provide a simple explanation for this asymmetric characteristic based on charge-induced local changes in the concentration of cations near the lipid bilayer membrane. Charge-based ion channel sensors offer tremendous potential for ultrasensitive functional detection since a single chemical modification of each individual sensing element can lead to readily detectable changes in channel conductance.
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