N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are glutamate-gated excitatory channels that play essential roles in brain functions. High-resolution structures have been solved for an allosterically inhibited and agonist-bound form of a functional NMDA receptor; however, other key functional states (particularly the active open-channel state) were only resolved at moderate resolutions by cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). To decrypt the mechanism of the NMDA receptor activation, structural modeling is essential to provide presently missing information about structural dynamics. We performed systematic coarse-grained modeling using an elastic network model and related modeling/analysis tools (e.g., normal mode analysis, flexibility and hotspot analysis, cryo-EM flexible fitting, and transition pathway modeling) based on an active-state cryo-EM map. We observed extensive conformational changes that allosterically couple the extracellular regulatory and agonist-binding domains to the pore-forming trans-membrane domain (TMD), and validated these, to our knowledge, new observations against known mutational and functional studies. Our results predict two key modes of collective motions featuring shearing/twisting of the extracellular domains relative to the TMD, reveal subunit-specific flexibility profiles, and identify functional hotspot residues at key domain-domain interfaces. Finally, by examining the conformational transition pathway between the allosterically inhibited form and the active form, we predict a discrete sequence of domain motions, which propagate from the extracellular domains to the TMD. In summary, our results offer rich structural and dynamic information, which is consistent with the literature on structure-function relationships in NMDA receptors, and will guide in-depth studies on the activation dynamics of this important neurotransmitter receptor.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.