Mechanism of μ-Opioid Receptor-Magnesium Interaction and Positive Allosteric Modulation

Xiaohu Hu, Davide Provasi, Steven Ramsey, Marta Filizola

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


In the era of opioid abuse epidemics, there is an increased demand for understanding how opioid receptors can be allosterically modulated to guide the development of more effective and safer opioid therapies. Among the modulators of the μ-opioid (MOP) receptor, which is the pharmacological target for the majority of clinically used opioid drugs, are monovalent and divalent cations. Specifically, the monovalent sodium cation (Na+) has been known for decades to affect MOP receptor signaling by reducing agonist binding, whereas the divalent magnesium cation (Mg2+) has been shown to have the opposite effect, notwithstanding the presence of sodium chloride. Although ultra-high-resolution opioid receptor crystal structures have revealed a specific Na+ binding site and molecular dynamics (MD) simulation studies have supported the idea that this monovalent ion reduces agonist binding by stabilizing the receptor inactive state, the putative binding site of Mg2+ on the MOP receptor, as well as the molecular determinants responsible for its positive allosteric modulation of the receptor, are unknown. In this work, we carried out tens of microseconds of all-atom MD simulations to investigate the simultaneous binding of Mg2+ and Na+ cations to inactive and active crystal structures of the MOP receptor embedded in an explicit lipid-water environment and confirmed adequate sampling of Mg2+ ion binding with a grand canonical Monte Carlo MD method. Analyses of these simulations shed light on 1) the preferred binding sites of Mg2+ on the MOP receptor, 2) details of the competition between Mg2+ and Na+ cations for specific sites, 3) estimates of binding affinities, and 4) testable hypotheses of the molecular mechanism underlying the positive allosteric modulation of the MOP receptor by the Mg2+ cation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)909-921
Number of pages13
JournalBiophysical Journal
Issue number4
StatePublished - 25 Feb 2020


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