Mutations in the GJB2 gene, which encodes Cx26, are the most common cause of sensorineural deafness. In syndromic cases, such as keratitis-ichthyosis-deafness (KID) syndrome, in which deafness is accompanied by corneal inflammation and hyperkeratotic skin, aberrant hemichannel function has emerged as the leading contributing factor. We found that D50N, the most frequent mutation associated with KID syndrome, produces multiple aberrant hemichannel properties, including loss of inhibition by extracellular Ca2+, decreased unitary conductance, increased open hemichannel current rectification and voltage-shifted activation. We demonstrate that D50 is a pore-lining residue and that negative charge at this position strongly influences open hemichannel properties. Examination of two putative intersubunit interactions involving D50 suggested by the Cx26 crystal structure, K61- D50 and Q48-D50, showed no evidence of a K61-D50 interaction in hemichannels. However, our data suggest that Q48 and D50 interact and disruption of this interaction shifts hemichannel activation positive along the voltage axis. Additional shifts in activation by extracellular Ca2+ remained in the absence of a D50-Q48 interaction but required an Asp or Glu at position 50, suggesting a separate electrostatic mechanism that critically involves this position. In gap junction (GJ) channels, D50 substitutions produced loss of function, whereas K61 substitutions functioned as GJ channels but not as hemichannels. These data demonstrate that D50 exerts effects on Cx26 hemichannel and GJ channel function as a result of its dual role as a pore residue and a component of an intersubunit complex in the extracellular region of the hemichannel. Differences in the effects of substitutions in GJ channels and hemichannels suggest that perturbations in structure occur upon hemichannel docking that significantly impact function. Collectively, these data provide insight into Cx26 structure-function and the underlying bases for the phenotypes associated with KID syndrome patients carrying the D50N mutation.
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