The Calcium Pump
March 2004 Molecule of the Month
by David S. Goodsell
Every time we move a muscle, it requires the combined action of trillions of myosin motors.
Our muscle cells use calcium ions to coordinate this massive molecular effort. When a
muscle cell is given the signal to contract from its associated nerves, it releases a flood of
calcium ions from a special intracellular container, the sarcoplasmic reticulum, that
surrounds the bundles of actin and myosin filaments. The calcium ions rapidly spread and
bind to tropomyosins on the actin filaments. They shift shape slightly and allow myosin to
bind and begin climbing up the filament. These trillions of myosin motors will continue
climbing, contracting the muscle, until the calcium is removed.
The calcium pump allows muscles to relax after this frenzied wave of calcium-induced
contraction. The pump is found in the membrane of the sarcoplasmic reticulum. In some
cases, it is so plentiful that it may make up 90% of the protein there. Powered by ATP, it
pumps calcium ions back into the sarcoplasmic reticulum, reducing the calcium level around
the actin and myosin filaments and allowing the muscle to relax. Calcium ions are also used
for signaling inside other cells, and similar pumps are found in the cell membrane of most
cells. They constantly work to reduce the amount of calcium to very low levels, preparing
the cell. Then, at a moment's notice, the cell can allow a flood of calcium to enter, spreading
the signal to all corners.
The calcium pump is an amazing machine with several moving parts. It is found in the
membrane, as shown here from PDB entry 1eul. It has a big domain poking out on the
outside of the sarcoplasmic reticulum, and a region that is embedded in the membrane,
forming a tunnel to the other side. For each ATP broken, it transfers two calcium ions
(shown here in blue) through the membrane, and two or three hydrogen ions back in the
opposite direction. As shown on the next page, the calcium pump bends and flexes during
the pumping cycle.
Next: The Pumping Cycle