The membrane-bound sodium–calcium exchanger (NCX) proteins shape Ca2+
homeostasis in many cell types, thus participating in a wide range of physiological and pathological processes. Determination of the crystal structure of an archaeal NCX (NCX_Mj) paved the way for a thorough and systematic investigation of ion transport mechanisms in NCX proteins. Here, we review the data gathered from the X-ray crystallography, molecular dynamics simulations, hydrogen–deuterium exchange mass-spectrometry (HDX-MS), and ion-flux analyses of mutants. Strikingly, the apo NCX_Mj protein exhibits characteristic patterns in the local backbone dynamics at particular helix segments, thereby possessing characteristic HDX profiles, suggesting structure-dynamic preorganization (geometric arrangements of catalytic residues before the transition state) of conserved α1
repeats at ion-coordinating residues involved in transport activities. Moreover, dynamic preorganization of local structural entities in the apo protein predefines the status of ion-occlusion and transition states, even though Na+
binding modifies the preceding backbone dynamics nearby functionally important residues. Future challenges include resolving the structural-dynamic determinants governing the ion selectivity, functional asymmetry and ion-induced alternating access. Taking into account the structural similarities of NCX_Mj with the other proteins belonging to the Ca2+
/cation exchanger superfamily, the recent findings can significantly improve our understanding of ion transport mechanisms in NCX and similar proteins.
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