We have investigated the gating kinetics of calcium channels in the A7r5 cell line at the level of single channels and whole cell currents, in the absence and presence of dihydropyridine (DHP) calcium channel agonists. Although latencies to first opening and macroscopic currents are strongly voltage dependent, analysis of amplitude histograms indicates that the primary open-closed transition is voltage independent. This suggests that the molecular mechanisms for voltage sensing and channel opening are distinct, but coupled. We propose a modified Monod-Wyman-Changeux (MWC) model for channel activation, where movement of a voltage sensor is analogous to ligand binding, and the closed and open channels correspond to inactive (T) and active (R) states. This model can account for the activation kinetics of the calcium channel, and is consistent with the existence of four homologous domains in the main subunit of the calcium channel protein. DHP agonists slow deactivation kinetics, shift the activation curve to more negative potentials with an increase in slope, induce intermingled fast and slow channel openings, and reduce the latency to first opening. These effects are predicted by the MWC model if we make the simple assumption that DHP agonists act as allosteric effectors to stabilize the open states of the channel.

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