Voltage-activated K+ channels are integral membrane proteins that open or close a K+-selective pore in response to changes in transmembrane voltage. Although the S4 region of these channels has been implicated as the voltage sensor, little is known about how opening and closing of the pore is accomplished. We explored the gating process by introducing cysteines at various positions thought to lie in or near the pore of the Shaker K+ channel, and by testing their ability to be chemically modified. We found a series of positions in the S6 transmembrane region that react rapidly with water-soluble thiol reagents in the open state but not the closed state. An open-channel blocker can protect several of these cysteines, showing that they tie in the ion-conducting pore. At two of these sites, Cd2+ ions bind to the cysteines without affecting the energetics of gating; at a third site, Cd2+ binding holds the channel open. The results suggest that these channels open and close by the movement of an intracellular gate, distinct from the selectivity filter, that regulates access to the pore.
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