Every voltage-gated ion channel (VGIC) superfamily member has an ion conducting pore consisting of four pore domain (PD) subunits. The extent to which this structure, the VGIC-PD fold, relies on the extensive quaternary interactions observed in PD assemblies is unclear.
Every voltage-gated ion channel (VGIC) superfamily member has an ion conducting pore consisting of four pore domain (PD) subunits that are each built from a common plan comprising an antiparallel transmembrane helix pair, a short, obliquely positioned helix (the pore helix), and selectivity filter. The extent to which this structure, the VGIC-PD fold, relies on the extensive quaternary interactions observed in PD assemblies is unclear. Here, we present crystal structures of three bacterial voltage-gated sodium channel (BacNaV) pores that adopt a surprising set of non canonical quaternary structures and yet maintain the native tertiary structure of the PD monomer. This context-independent structural robustness demonstrates that the VGIC-PD fold, the fundamental VGIC structural building block, can adopt its native-like tertiary fold independent of native quaternary interactions. In line with this observation, we find that the VGIC PD fold is not only present throughout the VGIC superfamily and other channel classes but has homologs in diverse transmembrane and soluble proteins. Characterization of the structures of two synthetic Fabs (sFabs) that recognize the VGIC PD fold shows that such sFabs can bind purified full-length channels and indicates that non-canonical quaternary PD assemblies can occur in the context of complete VGICs. Together, our data demonstrate that the VGIC-PD structure can fold independently of higher order assembly interactions and suggest that full length VGIC PDs can access previously unknown non-canonical quaternary states. These PD properties have deep implications for understanding how the complex quaternary architectures of VGIC superfamily members are achieved and point to possible evolutionary origins of this fundamental VGIC structural element.