This story is from the category Sensors
Date posted: 06/03/2012
The winter sun feels welcome, but not so a summer sunburn. Research over the past 20 years has shown that proteins on the surface of nerve cells enable the body to sense several different temperatures. Now scientists have discovered how just a few of these proteins, called ion channels, distinguish perhaps dozens of discrete temperatures, from mildly warm to very hot.
Researchers showed that the building blocks, or subunits, of heat-sensitive ion channels can assemble in many different combinations, yielding new types of channels, each capable of detecting a different temperature. The discovery, in cell cultures, demonstrates for the first time that only four genes, each encoding one subunit type, can generate dozens of different heat-sensitive channels.
"Researchers in the past have assumed that because there are only four genes, there are only four heat-sensitive channels, but now we have shown that there are many more," said Jie Zheng, leader of the research and an associate professor of physiology and membrane biology at the UC Davis School of Medicine.
The research was published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry on March 2.
Ion channels are pores in cell membranes. Their ability to open and close controls the flow of charged ions, which turns neuron signalling on or off -- in this case to inform the body of the temperature the neuron senses.
The researchers found that when different subunits combine, the resultant hybrid, or heteromeric, channel can detect temperatures about midway between what the "parent" channels detect.
One of the channels they studied, called TRPV1, reacts to hot temperatures -- about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is also responsible for the ability to sense spicy foods, such as chili peppers. A second channel, TRPV3, responds to temperatures of about 85 degrees. It also senses many food flavors such as those found in rosemary, oregano, vanilla and cinnamon that elicit a warm sensation.
When the TRPV1 and TRPV3 subunits recombine, the heteromeric channel is tuned to about 92 degrees. Surprisingly, the study showed that the hybrid channel has an even higher chemical sensitivity than the channels that made it up.
Zheng and his colleagues also showed that channels made up of TRPV1 and TRPV3 subunits react to heat at a rate about midway between that of the two constituent channel subunits. But repeatedly exposing the hybrid channels to their target temperature boosted their response, a behavior called sensitization, which TRPV3 also exhibits.
"It says 'I remember this temperature. I will make a really loud noise to tell the system that it is coming,'" Zheng said. The process allows the body to be more sensitive to temperature.
By contrast, TRPV1 typically responds the same way when repeatedly exposed to its target temperature -- and sometimes even decreases its response, a process called desensitization. It helps the body to adapt to high temperature, Zheng explained.
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