In TTX-sensitive nerve and skeletal muscle Na+ channels, selective modification of external carboxyl groups with trimethyloxonium (TMO) or water-soluble carbodiimide (WSC) prevents voltage-dependent Ca2+ block, reduces unitary conductance, and decreases guanidinium toxin affinity. In the case of TMO, it has been suggested that all three effects result from modification of a single carboxyl group, which causes a positive shift in the channel's surface potential. We studied the effect of these reagents on Ca2+ block of adult rabbit ventricular Na+ channels in cell-attached patches. In unmodified channels, unitary conductance (gamma Na) was 18.6 +/- 0.9 pS with 280 mM Na+ and 2 mM Ca2+ in the pipette and was reduced to 5.2 +/- 0.8 pS by 10 mM Ca2+. In contrast to TTX-sensitive Na+ channels, Ca2+ block of cardiac Na+ channels was not prevented by TMO; after TMO pretreatment, gamma Na was 6.1 +/- 1.0 pS in 10 mM Ca2+. Nevertheless, TMO altered cardiac Na+ channel properties. In 2 mM Ca2+, TMO-treated patches exhibited up to three discrete gamma Na levels: 15.3 +/- 1.7, 11.3 +/- 1.5, and 9.8 +/- 1.8 pS. Patch-to-patch variation in which levels were present and the absence of transitions between levels suggests that at least two sites were modified by TMO. An abbreviation of mean open time (MOT) accompanied each decrease in gamma Na. The effects on channel gating of elevating external Ca2+ differed from those of TMO pretreatment. Increasing pipette Ca2+ from 2 to 10 mM prolonged the MOT at potentials positive to approximately -35 mV by decreasing the open to inactivated (O-->I) transition rate constant. On the other hand, even in 10 mM Ca2+ TMO accelerated the O-->I transition rate constant without a change in its voltage dependence. Ensemble averages after TMO showed a shortening of the time to peak current and an acceleration of the rate of current decay. Channel modification with WSC resulted in analogous effects to those of TMO in failing to show relief from block by 10 mM Ca2+. Further, WSC caused a decrease in gamma Na and an abbreviation of MOT at all potentials tested. We conclude that a change in surface potential caused by a single carboxyl modification is inadequate to explain the effects of TMO and WSC in heart. Failure of TMO and WSC to prevent Ca2+ block of the cardiac Na+ channel is a new distinction among isoforms in the Na+ channel multigene family.

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