Natural resistance-associated macrophage protein (Nramp) transporters enable uptake of essential transition metal micronutrients in numerous biological contexts. These proteins are believed to function as secondary transporters that harness the electrochemical energy of proton gradients by “coupling” proton and metal transport. Here we use the Deinococcus radiodurans (Dra) Nramp homologue, for which we have determined crystal structures in multiple conformations, to investigate mechanistic details of metal and proton transport. We untangle the proton-metal coupling behavior of DraNramp into two distinct phenomena: ΔpH stimulation of metal transport rates and metal stimulation of proton transport. Surprisingly, metal type influences substrate stoichiometry, leading to manganese-proton cotransport but cadmium uniport, while proton uniport also occurs. Additionally, a physiological negative membrane potential is required for high-affinity metal uptake. To begin to understand how Nramp’s structure imparts these properties, we target a conserved salt-bridge network that forms a proton-transport pathway from the metal-binding site to the cytosol. Mutations to this network diminish voltage and ΔpH dependence of metal transport rates, alter substrate selectivity, perturb or eliminate metal-stimulated proton transport, and erode the directional bias favoring outward-to-inward metal transport under physiological-like conditions. Thus, this unique salt-bridge network may help Nramp-family transporters maximize metal uptake and reduce deleterious back-transport of acquired metals. We provide a new mechanistic model for Nramp proton-metal cotransport and propose that functional advantages may arise from deviations from the traditional model of symport.

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