The molecular mechanism of secondary sodium symporters elucidated through the lens of the computational microscope
Transport of molecules across cellular membranes is a key biological process for normal cell function. As such, secondary active transporters exploit electrochemical ion gradients to carry out fundamental processes, i.e. nutrients uptake, ion regulation, neurotransmission, and substrate extrusion. Despite their modest sequence similarity, several Na+ symporters share the same fold of LeuT (leucine transporter), a prokaryotic member of the neurotransmitter-sodium symporter family, pinpointing to a common structural/functional mechanism of transport. This is associated with specific conformational transitions occurring along a so-called alternating access mechanism. Thanks to recent advances in computer simulation techniques and the ever-increasing computational power that has become available in the last decade, molecular dynamics (MD) simulations have been largely employed to provide atomistic insights into mechanistic, kinetic, and thermodynamic aspects of this family of transporters. Here we report a detailed overview of selected Na+-symporters belonging to the LeuT-fold superfamily for which different aspects of the transport mechanism have been addressed using both experimental and computational studies. The aim of this review is to describe current state-of-the-art knowledge on the mechanism of these transporters showing how molecular simulations have contributed to elucidate mechanistic aspects and can provide nowadays a spatial and temporal resolution, allowing the interpretation of experimental findings, complementing biophysical methods, and filling the gaps in fragmentary experimental information.