We have monitored cytosolic [Ca2+] and dopamine release in intact fura-2-loaded glomus cells with microfluoroimetry and a polarized carbon fiber electrode. Exposure to low PO2 produced a rise of cytosolic [Ca2+] with two distinguishable phases: an initial period (with PO2 values between 150 and approximately 70 mm Hg) during which the increase of [Ca2+] is very small and never exceeds 150-200 nM, and a second phase (with PO2 below approximately 70 mm Hg) characterized by a sharp rise of cytosolic [Ca2+]. Secretion occurs once cytosolic [Ca2+] reaches a threshold value of 180 +/- 43 nM. The results demonstrate a characteristic relationship between PO2 and transmitter secretion at the cellular level that is comparable with the relation described for the input (O2 tension)output (afferent neural discharges) variables in the carotid body. Thus, the properties of single glomus cells can explain the sensory functions of the entire organ. In whole-cell, patch-clamped cells, we have found that in addition to O2-sensitive K+ channels, there are Ca2+ channels whose activity is also regulated by PO2. Ca2+ channel activity is inhibited by hpoxia, although in a strongly voltage-dependent manner. The average hypoxic inhibition of the calcium current in 30% +/- 10% at -20 mV but only 2% +/- 2% at +30 mV. The differential inhibition of K+ and Ca2+ channels by hypoxia helps to explain why the secretory response of the cells is displaced toward PO2 values (below approximately 70 mm Hg) within the range of those normally existing in arterial blood. These data provide a conceptual framework for understanding the cellular mechanisms of O2 chemotransduction in the carotid body.

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