Human ether-a-go-go-related gene (HERG) encodes the rapid, outwardly rectifying K+ current I Kr that is critical for repolarization of the cardiac action potential. Congenital HERG mutations or unintended pharmaceutical block of IKr can lead to life-threatening arrhythmias. Here, we assess the functional role of the alanine at position 653 (HERG-A653) that is highly conserved among evolutionarily divergent K+ channels. HERG-A653 is close to the 'glycine hinge' implicated in K+ channel opening, and is flanked by tyrosine 652 and phenylalanine 656, which contribute to the drug binding site. We substituted an array of seven (I, C, S, G, Y, V and T) amino acids at position 653 and expressed individual variants in heterologous systems to assess changes in gating and drug binding. Substitution of A653 resulted in negative shifts of the V1/2 of activation ranging from -23.6 (A653S) to -62.5 (A653V) compared to -11.2 mV for wild-type (WT). Deactivation was also drastically altered: channels with A653I/C substitutions exhibited delayed deactivation in response to test potentials above the activation threshold, while A653S/G/Y/V/T failed to deactivate under those conditions and required hyperpolarization and prolonged holding potentials at -130 mV. While A653S/G/T/Y variants showed decreased sensitivity to the IKr inhibitor dofetilide, these changes could not be correlated with defects in channel closure. Homology modelling suggests that in the closed state, A653 forms tight contacts with several residues from the neighbouring subunit in the tetramer, playing a key role in S6 helix packing at the narrowest part of the vestibule. Our study suggests that A653 plays an important functional role in the outwardly rectifying gating behaviour of HERG, supporting channel closure at membrane potentials negative to the channel activation threshold.
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