Nematode degenerins have been implicated in touch sensitivity and other forms of mechanosensation. Certain mutations in several degenerin genes cause the swelling, vacuolation, and death of neurons, and other mutations in the muscle degenerin gene unc-105 cause hypercontraction. Here, we confirm that unc-105 encodes an ion channel and show that it is constitutively active when mutated. These mutations disrupt different regions of the channel and have different effects on its gating. The UNC-105 channels are permeable to small monovalent cations but show voltage-dependent block by Ca2+ and Mg2+. Amiloride also produces voltage-dependent block, consistent with a single binding site 65% into the electric field. Mammalian cells expressing the mutant channels accumulate membranous whorls and multicompartment vacuoles, hallmarks of degenerin-induced cell death across species.
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