What is an ion channel?

Friday, August 15, 2008
by Linley Erin Hall

Ion channels are proteins found in a cell’s membrane. Ions are molecules or atoms that are positively or negatively charged. Ion channels create tiny openings in the membrane. They only allow specific ions to pass through.

Researchers can measure an electric current through single ion channels in the membrane. Molecules in the solution around ion channels can influence this current even if the molecules don’t go through the channel. ASU researchers have used this characteristic to design their sensor.

“Nature spent a long time designing ion channels to be specific to molecules. We can build on that; we don’t need to create a whole new system,” says ASU engineer Trevor Thornton.

ASU researchers are using ion channels to create sensors for biohazards. But the technology can be used in other areas.

Ion channels are important for many processes in the human body. Ion channels are involved in the transmission of signals in the nervous system. They also help make sure that the heart beats properly.

Companies that make drugs are looking for new medicines that affect ion channels.

ASU’s combination of silicon chips and cell membranes could speed up the discovery of new drugs. The sensors could also be used in medical devices.

Read about how ASU scientists are using ion channels to help detect dangerous chemicals.