Rate-equilibrium free energy relationship (REFER) analysis provides information on transition-state structures and has been applied to reveal the temporal sequence in which the different regions of an ion channel protein move during a closed-open conformational transition. To date, the theory used to interpret REFER relationships has been developed only for equilibrium mechanisms. Gating of most ion channels is an equilibrium process, but recently several ion channels have been identified to have retained nonequilibrium traits in their gating cycles, inherited from transporter-like ancestors. So far it has not been examined to what extent REFER analysis is applicable to such systems. By deriving the REFER relationships for a simple nonequilibrium mechanism, this paper addresses whether an equilibrium mechanism can be distinguished from a nonequilibrium one by the characteristics of their REFER plots, and whether information on the transition-state structures can be obtained from REFER plots for gating mechanisms that are known to be nonequilibrium cycles. The results show that REFER plots do not carry information on the equilibrium nature of the underlying gating mechanism. Both equilibrium and nonequilibrium mechanisms can result in linear or nonlinear REFER plots, and complementarity of REFER slopes for opening and closing transitions is a trivial feature true for any mechanism. Additionally, REFER analysis provides limited information about the transition-state structures for gating schemes that are known to be nonequilibrium cycles.
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