Ion channels are membrane proteins that mediate efficient ion transport across the hydrophobic core of cell membranes, an unlikely process in their absence. K+ channels discriminate K+ over cations with similar radii with extraordinary selectivity and display a wide diversity of ion transport rates, covering differences of two orders of magnitude in unitary conductance. The pore domains of large- and small-conductance K+ channels share a general architectural design comprising a conserved narrow selectivity filter, which forms intimate interactions with permeant ions, flanked by two wider vestibules toward the internal and external openings. In large-conductance K+ channels, the inner vestibule is wide, whereas in small-conductance channels it is narrow. Here we raise the idea that the physical dimensions of the hydrophobic internal vestibule limit ion transport in K+ channels, accounting for their diversity in unitary conductance.
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