The regulation of insulin secretion from pancreatic beta-cells depends critically on the activities of their plasma membrane ion channels. ATP-sensitive K+ channels (K(ATP) channels) are present in many cells and regulate a variety of cellular functions by coupling cell metabolism with membrane potential. The activity of the K(ATP) channels in pancreatic beta-cells is regulated by changes in the ATP and ADP concentrations (ATP/ADP ratio) caused by glucose metabolism. Thus, the K(ATP) channels are the ATP and ADP sensors in the regulation of glucose-induced insulin secretion. K(ATP) channels are also the target of sulfonylureas, which are widely used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Molecular cloning of the two subunits of the pancreatic beta-cell K(ATP) channel, Kir6.2 (an inward rectifier K+ channel member) and SUR1 (a receptor for sulfonylureas), has provided great insight into its structure and function. Kir6.2 subunits form the K+ ion-permeable pore and primarily confer inhibition of the channels by ATP, while SUR1 subunits confer activation of the channels by MgADP and K+ channel openers, such as diazoxide, as well as inhibition by sulfonylureas. The SUR1 subunits also enhance the sensitivity of the channels to ATP. To determine the physiological roles of K(ATP) channels directly, we have generated two kinds of genetically engineered mice: mice expressing a dominant-negative form of Kir6.2 specifically in the pancreatic beta-cells (Kir6.2G132S Tg mice) and mice lacking Kir6.2 (Kir6.2 knockout mice). Studies of these mice elucidated various roles of the K(ATP) channels in endocrine pancreatic function: 1) the K(ATP) channels are the major determinant of the resting membrane potential of pancreatic beta-cells, 2) both glucose- and sulfonylurea-induced membrane depolarization of beta-cells require closure of the K(ATP) channels, 3) both glucose- and sulfonylurea-induced rises in intracellular calcium concentration in beta-cells require closure of the K(ATP) channels, 4) both glucose- and sulfonylurea-induced insulin secretions are mediated principally by the K(ATP) channel-dependent pathway, 5) the K(ATP) channels are important for beta-cell survival and architecture of the islets, 6) the K(ATP) channels are important in the differentiation of islet cells, and 7) the K(ATP) channels in glucose-responsive cells generally participate in coupling glucose sensing with cell excitability. Interestingly, despite the severe defect in glucose-induced insulin secretion, Kir6.2 knockout mice show only a very mild impairment in glucose tolerance. However, when the knockout mice become obese with age, they develop fasting hyperglycemia and glucose intolerance, while neither fasting hyperglycemia nor glucose intolerance is evident in the aged knockout mice without obesity, suggesting that both the genetic defect in glucose-induced insulin secretion and the acquired insulin resistance due to environmental factors are necessary to develop diabetes in Kir6.2 knockout mice. Thus, Kir6.2G132S Tg mice and Kir6.2 knockout mice provide a model of type 2 diabetes and clarify the various roles of K(ATP) channels in endocrine pancreatic function.

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