Molecular determinants of beta-carboline inhibition of the glycine receptor
beta-Carbolines are potent modulators of GABA type A receptors and they have recently been shown to inhibit glycine receptors in a subunit-specific manner. The present study screened four structurally similar beta-carbolines, 1,2,3,4-tetrahydronorharmane, norharmane, harmane and 6-methoxyharmalan, at recombinantly expressed alpha1, alpha1beta, alpha2 and alpha3 glycine receptors with the aims of identifying structural elements of both the receptor and the compounds that are important for binding and subunit specificity. The four compounds exhibited only weak subunit specificity, rendering them unsuitable as pharmacological probes. Because they displayed competitive antagonist activity, we investigated the roles of known glycine binding residues in coordinating the four compounds. The structural similarity of the compounds, coupled with the differential effects of C-loop mutations (T204A, F207Y) on compound potency, implied direct interactions between variable beta-carboline groups and mutated residues. Mutant cycle analysis employing harmane and norharmane revealed a strong pairwise interaction between the harmane methyl group and the C-loop in the region T204 and F207. These results which define the orientation of the bound beta-carbolines were supported by molecular docking simulations. The information may also be relevant to understanding the mechanism beta-carboline of binding to GABA type A receptors where they are potent pharmacological probes.