How do biological systems discriminate among physically similar ions?

The Journal of Experimental Zoology
J M Diamond


This paper reviews the history of understanding how biological systems can discriminate so strikingly among physically similar ions, especially alkali cations. Appreciation of qualitative regularities ("permitted sequences") and quantitative regularities ("selectivity isotherms") in ion selectivity grew first from studies of ion exchangers and glass electrodes, then of biological systems such as enzymes and cell membranes, and most recently of lipid bilayers doped with model pores and carriers. Discrimination of ions depends on both electrostatic and steric forces. "Black-box" studies on intact biological membranes have in some cases yielded molecular clues to the structure of the actual biological pores and carriers. Major current problems involve the extraction of these molecules; how to do it, what to do when it is achieved, and how (and if) it is relevant to the central problems of membrane function. Further advances are expected soon from studies of rate barriers within membranes, of voltage-dependent ("excitable") conducting channels, and of increasingly complex model systems and biological membranes.


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