For sense of touch/pain and hearing, cation channels that are directly activated in response to mechanical forces have been characterized. In addition, many other cell types including vascular smooth muscle cells express such mechanically-activated (MA) cationic currents, and mechanotransduction is implicated in various biological processes and diseases. Remarkably, however, the identity of these ion channels in vertebrates has remained unknown. We recently identified MA cation channel components in vertebrates named Piezo1 and Piezo2. Expressing Piezos in a variety of mammalian cell lines induce large MA cationic currents. Piezos are expressed in a variety of tissues implicated in mechanotransduction. Piezo1 and Piezo2 contain over 24 putative transmembrane domains but do not resemble known ion channels or other protein classes. Many important open questions remain about the structure of these proteins. Here, we hypothesize that Piezo1 oligomerizes to form pore-containing subunits of mechanically-activated ion channels.
Mechanotransduction impacts a variety of biological systems and diseases, and is linked to hearing and deafness, inflammatory pain states, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis. Indeed, many cells use mechanosensitivity to coordinate cell and tissue growth, and failure of these mechanisms may contribute to cancer and other pathologies. Therefore, a molecular understanding of mechanical sensation is important and relevant to a variety of medical indications.
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