Cholesterol is an essential component of cell membranes, and is required for mammalian pentameric ligand-gated ion channel (pLGIC) function. Computational studies suggest direct interactions between cholesterol and pLGICs but experimental evidence identifying specific binding sites is limited. In this study, we mapped cholesterol binding to Gloeobacter ligand-gated ion channel (GLIC), a model pLGIC chosen for its high level of expression, existing crystal structure, and previous use as a prototypic pLGIC. Using two cholesterol analogue photolabeling reagents with the photoreactive moiety on opposite ends of the sterol, we identified two cholesterol binding sites: an intersubunit site between TM3 and TM1 of adjacent subunits and an intrasubunit site between TM1 and TM4. In both the inter- and intrasubunit sites, cholesterol is oriented such that the 3‑OH group points toward the center of the transmembrane domains rather than toward either the cytosolic or extracellular surfaces. We then compared this binding to that of the cholesterol metabolite, allopregnanolone, a neurosteroid that allosterically modulates pLGICs. The same binding pockets were identified for allopregnanolone and cholesterol, but the binding orientation of the two ligands was markedly different, with the 3‑OH group of allopregnanolone pointing to the intra- and extracellular termini of the transmembrane domains rather than to their centers. We also found that cholesterol increases, whereas allopregnanolone decreases the thermal stability of GLIC. These data indicate that cholesterol and neurosteroids bind to common hydrophobic pockets in the model pLGIC, GLIC, but that their effects depend on the orientation and specific molecular interactions unique to each sterol.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)128-136
Number of pages9
JournalBiochimica et Biophysica Acta - Molecular and Cell Biology of Lipids
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2019


  • Cholesterol binding
  • Ligand orientation
  • Mass spectrometry
  • Pentameric ligand-gated ion channel
  • Photoaffinity labeling
  • Protein-sterol interactions


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