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Open Access Research article

Developmental expression of BK channels in chick cochlear hair cells

Yi Li1, Graham M Atkin2, Marti M Morales3, Li Qian Liu3, Mingjie Tong3 and R Keith Duncan3*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA

2 Neuroscience Program, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

3 Kresge Hearing Research Institute, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

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BMC Developmental Biology 2009, 9:67  doi:10.1186/1471-213X-9-67

Published: 15 December 2009



Cochlear hair cells are high-frequency sensory receptors. At the onset of hearing, hair cells acquire fast, calcium-activated potassium (BK) currents, turning immature spiking cells into functional receptors. In non-mammalian vertebrates, the number and kinetics of BK channels are varied systematically along the frequency-axis of the cochlea giving rise to an intrinsic electrical tuning mechanism. The processes that control the appearance and heterogeneity of hair cell BK currents remain unclear.


Quantitative PCR results showed a non-monotonic increase in BK α subunit expression throughout embryonic development of the chick auditory organ (i.e. basilar papilla). Expression peaked near embryonic day (E) 19 with six times the transcript level of E11 sensory epithelia. The steady increase in gene expression from E11 to E19 could not explain the sudden acquisition of currents at E18-19, implicating post-transcriptional mechanisms. Protein expression also preceded function but progressed in a sequence from diffuse cytoplasmic staining at early ages to punctate membrane-bound clusters at E18. Electrophysiology data confirmed a continued refinement of BK trafficking from E18 to E20, indicating a translocation of BK clusters from supranuclear to subnuclear domains over this critical developmental age.


Gene products encoding BK α subunits are detected up to 8 days before the acquisition of anti-BK clusters and functional BK currents. Therefore, post-transcriptional mechanisms seem to play a key role in the delayed emergence of calcium-sensitive currents. We suggest that regulation of translation and trafficking of functional α subunits, near voltage-gated calcium channels, leads to functional BK currents at the onset of hearing.