Glutamate transporters (excitatory amino acid transporter (EAATs)) are critical for normal excitatory signaling and maintaining subtoxic glutamate concentrations in mammalian central nervous system. Recently, a crystal structure for a homologous transporter in bacteria was reported. Still, little is understood regarding the mechanism of substrate uptake. In transmembrane domain 4, the mammalian EAATs contain a stretch of over 50 amino acids (4B-4C loop) that are absent in the bacterial protein. These residues have been suggested to be located in the large extracellular vestibule seen in the crystal structure. State-dependent trypsin-cleavage sites have been reported in this region, suggesting that the 4B-4C loop undergoes significant conformational changes. Here we employed substituted cysteine accessibility, voltage clamp fluorometry, and fluorescence resonance energy transfer on oocytes expressing mutant EAAT3 transporters to determine the location and functionality of the 4B-4C loop. We find that this loop extends from near the center of the protein and that the majority of the residues are positioned on the outer perimeter of the protein, rather than inside the vestibule. Our fluorescence resonance energy transfer measurements demonstrated that these residues do not undergo large scale motions during glutamate uptake. However, our voltage clamp fluorometry studies indicate that these residues report on Na+ and glutamate binding-induced conformational changes, including a previously un-described voltage-independent component of Na+ binding to the transporter. The finding that residues far from the glutamate-binding site report on several different types of binding events suggests that the series of small conformational changes that accomplish glutamate uptake extend throughout the transporter structure.
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