Connexin hemichannels are robustly regulated by voltage and divalent cations. The basis of voltage-dependent gating, however, has been questioned with reports that it is not intrinsic to hemichannels, but rather is derived from divalent cations acting as gating particles that block the pore in a voltage-dependent manner. Previously, we showed that connexin hemichannels possess two types of voltage-dependent gating, termed Vj and loop gating, that in Cx46 operate at opposite voltage polarities, positive and negative, respectively. Using recordings of single Cx46 hemichannels, we found both forms of gating persist in solutions containing no added Mg2+ and EGTA to chelate Ca2+. Although loop gating persists, it is significantly modulated by changing levels of extracellular divalent cations. When extracellular divalent cation concentrations are low, large hyperpolarizing voltages, exceeding -100 mV, could still drive Cx46 hemichannels toward closure. However, gating is characterized by continuous flickering of the unitary current interrupted by occasional, brief sojourns to a quiet closed state. Addition of extracellular divalent cations, in this case Mg2+, results in long-lived residence in a quiet closed state, suggesting that hyperpolarization drives the hemichannel to close, perhaps by initiating movements in the extracellular loops, and that divalent cations stabilize the fully closed conformation. Using excised patches, we found that divalent cations are only effective from the extracellular side, indicative that the binding site is not cytoplasmic or in the pore, but rather extracellular. Vj gating remains essentially unaffected by changing levels of extracellular divalent cations. Thus, we demonstrate that both forms of voltage dependence are intrinsic gating mechanisms in Cx46 hemichannels and that the action of external divalent cations is to selectively modulate loop gating.
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