MscL is a mechanosensitive channel of large conductance that serves as an "emergency relief valve", protecting bacteria from acute hypoosmotic stress. Although it is well-accepted that the MscL protein and an adequate membrane matrix are necessary and sufficient for the function of this channel, the exact role of the membrane has yet to be elucidated. Here, we address the role of the membrane matrix through in vitro reconstitution of the MscL protein in defined lipid bilayers. We have applied Laplace's law to visualized membrane patches where we can measure patch curvature as described in previous studies. Here, by comparing patches with different curvatures, we demonstrate that the MscL channel senses tension within the membrane and that the pressure across it plays no detectable role as a stimulus. In addition, gating only occurs when the smallest radius of curvature is nearly achieved, suggesting that the lateral tension rather than membrane curvature is the important biophysical parameter. Finally, we have examined the contribution of specific headgroups by measuring their effect on the membrane tension required to gate the channel. We have found that the addition of neither anionic nor endogenous lipids to a non-native membrane effected a leftward shift in the activation curve. In fact, the major endogenous lipid of the Escherichia coli membrane, phosphatidylethanolamine, led to a channel activity at a higher tension threshold, suggesting that this lipid effects altered activity through changes in the biophysical properties of the membrane, rather than through an MscL-specific interaction.
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