We have explored the role of a proline residue located at position 87 in the second transmembrane segment (TM2) of gap junctions in the mechanism of voltage-dependent gating of connexin32 (Cx32). Substitution of this proline (denoted Cx32P87) with residues G, A, or V affects channel function in a progressive manner consistent with the expectation that a proline kink (PK) motif exists in the second transmembrane segment (TM2) of this connexin. Mutations of the preceding threonine residue T86 to S, A, C, V, N, or L shift the conductance-voltage relation of wild-type Cx32, such that the mutated channels close at smaller transjunctional voltages. The observed shift in voltage dependence is consistent with a reduction in the open probability of the mutant hemichannels at a transjunctional voltage (V(j)) of 0 mV. In both cases in which kinetics were examined, the time constants for reaching steady state were faster for T86N and T86A than for wild type at comparable voltages, suggesting that the T86 mutations cause the energetic destabilization of the open state relative to the other states of the channel protein. The structural underpinnings of the observed effects were explored with Monte Carlo simulations. The conformational space of TM2 helices was found to differ for the T86A, V, N, and L mutants, which produce a less bent helix (~20°bend angle) compared to the wild type, which has a ~37°bend angle. The greater bend angle of the wild-type helix reflects the propensity of the T86 residue to hydrogen bond with the backbone carbonyl of amino acid residue 182. The relative differences in propensity for hydrogen bonding of the mutants relative to the wild-type threonine residue in the constructs we studied (T86A, V, N, L, S, and C) correlate with the shift in the conductance-voltage relation observed for T86 mutations. The data are consistent with a structural model in which the open conformation of the Cx32 channel corresponds to a more bent TM2 helix, and the closed conformation corresponds to a less bent helix. We propose that the modulation of the hydrogen-bonding potential of the T86 residue alters the bend angle of the PK motif and mediates conformational changes between open and closed channel states.
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