Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Vasanthi Jayaraman, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Michael R. Blackburn, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jianping Jin, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Jeffrey A. Frost, Ph.D.

Committee Member

John L.Spudich, Ph.D.


The family of membrane protein called glutamate receptors play an important role in the central nervous system in mediating signaling between neurons. Glutamate receptors are involved in the elaborate game that nerve cells play with each other in order to control movement, memory, and learning.

Neurons achieve this communication by rapidly converting electrical signals into chemical signals and then converting them back into electrical signals. To propagate an electrical impulse, neurons in the brain launch bursts of neurotransmitter molecules like glutamate at the junction between neurons, called the synapse. Glutamate receptors are found lodged in the membranes of the post-synaptic neuron. They receive the burst of neurotransmitters and respond by fielding the neurotransmitters and opening ion channels.

Glutamate receptors have been implicated in a number of neuropathologies like ischemia, stroke and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Specifically, the NMDA subtype of glutamate receptors has been linked to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and the subsequent degeneration of neuronal cells. While crystal structures of AMPA and kainate subtypes of glutamate receptors have provided valuable information regarding the assembly and mechanism of activation; little is known about the NMDA receptors. Even the basic question of receptor assembly still remains unanswered. Therefore, to gain a clear understanding of how the receptors are assembled and how agonist binding gets translated to channel opening, I have used a technique called Luminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (LRET). LRET offers the unique advantage of tracking large scale conformational changes associated with receptor activation and desensitization. In this dissertation, LRET, in combination with biochemical and electrophysiological studies, were performed on the NMDA receptors to draw a correlation between structure and function. NMDA receptor subtypes GluN1 and GluN2A were modified such that fluorophores could be introduced at specific sites to determine their pattern of assembly. The results indicated that the GluN1 subunits assembled across each other in a diagonal manner to form a functional receptor. Once the subunit arrangement was established, this was used as a model to further examine the mechanism of activation in this subtype of glutamate receptor. Using LRET, the correlation between cleft closure and activation was tested for both the GluN1 and GluN2A subunit of the NMDA receptor in response to agonists of varying efficacies. These investigations revealed that cleft closure plays a major role in the mechanism of activation in the NMDA receptor, similar to the AMPA and kainate subtypes. Therefore, suggesting that the mechanism of activation is conserved across the different subtypes of glutamate receptors.


glutamate, ion channels, glycine, AMPA, NMDA, smFRET, FRET, LRET, structure, function, membrane protein



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