The persistent question of potassium channel permeation mechanisms

Andrei Mironenko, Ulrich Zachariae, Bert L. de Groot, Wojciech Kopec (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

42 Citations (Scopus)
95 Downloads (Pure)


Potassium channels play critical roles in many physiological processes, providing a selective permeation route for K+ ions in and out of a cell, by employing a carefully designed selectivity filter, evolutionarily conserved from viruses to mammals. The structure of the selectivity filter was determined at atomic resolution by x-ray crystallography, showing a tight coordination of desolvated K+ ions by the channel. However, the molecular mechanism of K+ ions permeation through potassium channels remains unclear, with structural, functional and computational studies often providing conflicting data and interpretations. In this review, we will present the proposed mechanisms, discuss their origins, and will critically assess them against all available data. General properties shared by all potassium channels are introduced first, followed by the introduction of two main mechanisms of ion permeation: soft and direct knock-on. Then, we will discuss critical computational and experimental studies that shaped the field. We will especially focus on molecular dynamics (MD) simulations, that provided mechanistic and energetic aspects of K+ permeation, but at the same time created long-standing controversies. Further challenges and possible solutions are presented as well.

Original languageEnglish
Article number167002
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Molecular Biology
Issue number17
Early online date20 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 20 Aug 2021


  • ion permeation
  • membrane transport
  • molecular dynamics
  • potassium channels
  • simulations

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Structural Biology
  • Molecular Biology


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