Mammalian γ-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptors are constructed from a large repertoire of subunits (α1–α6, β1–β3, γ1–γ3, δ, ∊, θ and π) into a pentameric ion channel. GABAA receptor assembly occurs within the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and involves interactions with chaperone molecules. Only specific subunit combinations can produce functional surface receptors (with a fixed stoichiometry); other subunit combinations are retained within the ER and degraded. Thus, receptor assembly occurs by defined pathways to limit the diversity of GABAA receptors. The key to understanding how receptor diversity is achieved and controlled is the identification of assembly signals capable of distinguishing between other subunit partners. Analysis of an assembly box in α1 (residues 57–68) has revealed an absolute requirement for this region in the assembly of αβ receptors. Furthermore, a selective requirement for a single amino acid (R66) is observed for the assembly of α1β2, but not α1β1 or α1β3, receptors. In addition, we have characterized an assembly signal in the β3 subunit that is capable of driving the assembly of β3, γ2β3 and α1β3 receptors. Interestingly, this signal does not appear to utilize the α1 assembly box, suggesting the presence of alternative assembly signals within the α1 subunit. Although this β3 signal is sufficient to permit the formation of βγ receptors it is not necessary, suggesting that alternative assembly signals also exist within the β3 subunit. These findings support the belief that GABAA receptor assembly occurs via multiple defined pathways that may be determined by subunit availability.

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