Large-conductance Ca2+- and voltage-activated K+ channel (BK) open probability is enhanced by depolarization, increasing Ca2+ concentration, or both. These stimuli activate modular voltage and Ca2+ sensors that are allosterically coupled to channel gating. Here, we report a point mutation of a phenylalanine (F380A) in the S6 transmembrane helix that, in the absence of internal Ca2+, profoundly hinders channel opening while showing only minor effects on the voltage sensor active-resting equilibrium. Interpretation of these results using an allosteric model suggests that the F380A mutation greatly increases the free energy difference between open and closed states and uncouples Ca2+ binding from voltage sensor activation and voltage sensor activation from channel opening. However, the presence of a bulky and more hydrophobic amino acid in the F380 position (F380W) increases the intrinsic open-closed equilibrium, weakening the coupling between both sensors with the pore domain. Based on these functional experiments and molecular dynamics simulations, we propose tat F380 interacts with another S6 hydrophobic residue (L377) in contiguous subunits. This pair forms a hydrophobic ring important in determining the open-closed equilibrium and, like an integration node, participates in the communication between sensors and between the sensors and pore. Moreover, because of its effects on open probabilities, the F380A mutant can be used for detailed voltage sensor experiments in the presence of permeant cations.
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