The essential transmembrane Na+ and K+ gradients in animal cells are established by the Na+/K+ pump, a P-type ATPase that exports three Na+ and imports two K+ per ATP hydrolyzed. The mechanism by which the Na+/K+ pump distinguishes between Na+ and K+ at the two membrane sides is poorly understood. Crystal structures identify two sites (sites I and II) that bind Na+ or K+ and a third (site III) specific for Na+. The side chain of a conserved tyrosine at site III of the catalytic α-subunit (Xenopus-α1 Y780) has been proposed to contribute to Na+ binding by cation–π interaction. We substituted Y780 with natural and unnatural amino acids, expressed the mutants in Xenopus oocytes and COS-1 cells, and used electrophysiology and biochemistry to evaluate their function. Substitutions disrupting H-bonds impaired Na+ interaction, while Y780Q strengthened it, likely by H-bond formation. Utilizing the non-sense suppression method previously used to incorporate unnatural derivatives in ion channels, we were able to analyze Na+/K+ pumps with fluorinated tyrosine or phenylalanine derivatives inserted at position 780 to diminish cation–π interaction strength. In line with the results of the analysis of mutants with natural amino acid substitutions, the results with the fluorinated derivatives indicate that Na+–π interaction with the phenol ring at position 780 contributes minimally, if at all, to the binding of Na+. All Y780 substitutions decreased K+ apparent affinity, highlighting that a state-dependent H-bond network is essential for the selectivity switch at sites I and II when the pump changes conformational state.

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