We have studied the effects of the proteolytic enzyme Pronase on the membrane currents of voltage-clamped squid axons. Internal perfusion of the axons with Pronase rather selectively destroys inactivation of the Na conductance (gNa). At the level of a single channel, Pronase probably acts in an all-or-none manner: each channel inactivates normally until its inactivation gate is destroyed, and then it no longer inactivates. Pronase reduces Na, possibly by destroying some of the channels, but after removal of its inactivation gate a Na channel seems no longer vulnerable to Pronase. The turn-off kinetics and the voltage dependence of the Na channel activation gates are not affected by Pronase, and it is probable that the enzyme does not affect these gates in any way. Neither the K channels nor their activation gates are affected in a specific way by Pronase. Tetrodotoxin does not protect the inactivation gates from Pronase, nor does maintained inactivation of the Na channels during exposure to Pronase. Our results suggest that the inactivation gate is a readily accessible protein attached to the inner end of each Na channel. It is shown clearly that activation and inactivation of Na channels are separable processes, and that Na channels are distinct from K channels.

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