Considering the importance of K+ channels in controlling the crucial K+ gradient across the plasma membranes of all living cells, it comes as no surprise that, besides being present in every eukaryotic cell, these integral membrane proteins have recently also been identified in prokaryotes. Today, approximately a dozen successfully completed and many more ongoing sequencing projects permit a search for genes related to K+ channels in the genomes of both eubacteria and archaea. The coding regions of homologues show a remarkable variety in primary structure. They predict membrane proteins with one, two, three and six hydrophobic segments surrounding a putative K+-selective pore (H5) and the presence or absence of a cytosolic putative NAD+-binding domain (PNBD) that probably senses the reducing power of the cell. The analysis of kinships on the basis of phylogenetic algorithms identifies sequences closely related to eukaryotic voltage-dependent Kv channels, but also defines members of a primordial class of prokaryotic K+ channel (containing the 2TMS/PNBD motif). Considering the unique mechanisms that may account for the assembly of modern proteins from different ancestral genes, and with more primary sequence data soon to appear, a scheme for the evolutionary origin of K+ channels comes within reach.

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