Mechanosensitive channels sense and respond to changes in bilayer tension. In many respects, this is a unique property: the changes in membrane tension gate the channel, leading to the transient formation of open non-selective pores. Pore diameter is also high for the bacterial channels studied, MscS and MscL. Consequently, in cells, gating has severe consequences for energetics and homoeostasis, since membrane depolarization and modification of cytoplasmic ionic composition is an immediate consequence. Protection against disruption of cellular integrity, which is the function of the major channels, provides a strong evolutionary rationale for possession of such disruptive channels. The elegant crystal structures for these channels has opened the way to detailed investigations that combine molecular genetics with electrophysiology and studies of cellular behaviour. In the present article, the focus is primarily on the structure of MscS, the small mechanosensitive channel. The description of the structure is accompanied by discussion of the major sites of channel–lipid interaction and reasoned, but limited, speculation on the potential mechanisms of tension sensing leading to gating.

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