Cellular responses to hypoxia are tissue-specific and dynamic. However, the mechanisms that underlie this differential sensitivity to hypoxia are unknown. Large conductance voltage- and Ca-activated K (BK) channels are important mediators of hypoxia responses in many systems. Although BK channels are ubiquitously expressed, alternative pre-mRNA splicing of the single gene encoding their pore-forming alpha-subunits provides a powerful mechanism for generating functional diversity. Here, we demonstrate that the hypoxia sensitivity of BK channel alpha-subunits is splice-variant-specific. Sensitivity to hypoxia is conferred by a highly conserved motif within an alternatively spliced cysteine-rich insert, the stress-regulated exon (STREX), within the intracellular C terminus of the channel. Hypoxic inhibition of the STREX variant is Ca-sensitive and reversible, and it rapidly follows the change in oxygen tension by means of a mechanism that is independent of redox or CO regulation. Hypoxia sensitivity was abolished by mutation of the serine (S24) residue within the STREX insert. Because STREX splice-variant expression is tissue-specific and dynamically controlled, alternative splicing of BK channels provides a mechanism to control the plasticity of cellular responses to hypoxia.
- alternative splicing
- oxygen sensing