Ion channels of the DEG/ENaC family share a similar structure but serve strikingly diverse biological functions, such as Na+ reabsorption, mechanosensing, proton-sensing, chemosensing and cell-cell communication via neuropeptides. This functional diversity raises the question of the ancient function of DEG/ENaCs. Using an extensive phylogenetic analysis across many different animal groups, we found a surprising diversity of DEG/ENaCs already in Cnidaria (corals, sea anemones, hydroids and jellyfish). Using a combination of gene expression analysis, electrophysiological and functional studies combined with pharmacological inhibition as well as genetic knockout in the model cnidarian Nematostella vectensis, we reveal an unanticipated role for a proton-sensitive DEG/ENaC in discharge of N. vectensis cnidocytes, the stinging cells typifying all cnidarians. Our study supports the view that DEG/ENaCs are versatile channels that have been co-opted for diverse functions since their early occurrence in animals and that respond to simple and ancient stimuli, such as omnipresent protons.
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