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Ionotropic vs Metabotropic Receptors

In our previous article, I mentioned that after neurotransmitters are released into the synaptic cleft, they diffuse until they reach the postsynaptic membrane. There, they bind with either ionotropic or metabotropic receptors.

Let me explain the difference between these two types of receptors.

Ionotropic receptors

Ionotropic receptors

Ionotropic receptor. Image Credit: Bensaccount

Ionotropic receptors are transmembrane molecules that can “open” or “close” a channel that would allow smaller particles to travel in and out of the cell. As the name implies, IONotropic receptors allow different kinds of ions to travel in and out of the cell.

Ionotropic receptors are not opened (or closed) all the time. They are generally closed until another small molecule (called a ligand — In our case, a neurotransmitter) binds to the receptor.

As soon as the ligand binds to the receptor, the receptor changes conformation (the protein that makes up the channel changes shape), and as they do so they create a small opening that is big enough for ions to travel through.

  • Therefore, ionotropic receptors are “ligand-gated transmembrane ion channels”.

The ions that can travel through ionotropic receptors are generally limitted to K+, Na+, Cl-, and Ca2+.

Metabotropic receptors

Metabotropic receptors do not have a “channel” that opens or closes. Instead, they are linked to another small chemical called a “G-protein.”

As soon as a ligand binds the metabotropic receptor, the receptor “activates” the G-Protein (it basically changes the G-Protein). Once activated, the G-protein itself goes on and activates another molecule. This new molecule is called a “secondary messenger.”

(A secondary messenger is a chemical whose function is to go and activate other particles).

So far, this process is common to all metabotropic receptors. What happens from there on is different for every metabotropic receptors.

  • In some cases, the secondary messenger travel until it binds to and opens ion channels located somewhere else on the membrane.
  • In some cases, the secondary messenger will go and activate other intermediate molecules inside the cell.

The important thing to remember is that metabotropic receptors do not have ion channels, and binding of a ligand may or may not result in the opening of ion channels at different sites on the membrane. But they will always activate a g-protein that will in turn activate secondary messengers.

As we mentioned in the previous article, glutamate receptors are metabotropic receptors.

Differences in Function Between Ionotropic and Metabotropic Receptors

Ionotropic receptors act very quickly. As soon as a ligand binds to them, they change shape and allow ions to flow in. But the ligand doesn’t stay in place very long, and the channel closes back very quickly.

Metabotropic receptors, on the other hand, take a little longer “to do anything” depending on the number of steps (secondary messengers), required to produce a response.

But once activated, the secondary messengers can travel throughout the cell and result in a much wider range of responses.

Minimum To Remember

  • Ionotropic and metabotropic receptors are both ligand gated transmembrane proteins.
  • Ionotropic receptors change shape when they are bound by a ligand. This change in shape creates a channel that allows ions to flow through.
  • Metabotropic receptors do not have channels.
  • Metabotropic receptors activate a G-protein that in turn acivates a secondary messenger, that in turn will activate something else.
  • Metabotropic receptor activation may or may not result in the opening of ion channels somewhere else on the membrane.

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13 Responses to “Ionotropic vs Metabotropic Receptors”

  1. Pluto July 30, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    Receptors are generally present everywhere in the body right?
    So since metabotropic receptors are slow but have kind of prolonged effect so can process digestion fits in the category or I mean consists of metabotropic receptors.
    i’m sorry if my questions sounds lame I just want to clear my concepts.

    And thankyou for writing a detailed article on these types of receptors.

    • LenMag August 5, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      HI Pluto,

      What defines a metabotropic receptor is not the fact that it is slow and have prolonged effects.

      What defines a metabotropic receptor is that it has a G-Protein attached to it, and that the G-Protein becomes activated when a ligand binds the receptor. This G-protein, in turn, will activate a secondary messenger.

      It just so happens that metabotropic receptors also have slower and longer lasting effects.

      I don’t know if process digestion requires metabotropic receptors (I’ve only studied the brain). But you could check is g-proteins and secondary messengers are involved :-)

  2. Muahmmad March 6, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    Thanks a Lottt !

  3. rosa March 11, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    “As we mentioned in the previous article, glutamate receptors are metabotropic receptors.”

    I think they are ionotropic, not metabotropic.

    • Amy May 8, 2013 at 3:44 am #

      Just to clarify…
      Glutamate receptors can be both ionotropic or metabotropic.
      Ionotropic glutamate receptors involve ligand-gated Ca ion channel opening via NMDA and AMPA receptors, whereas..
      Metabotropic glutamate receptors couple G-protein and activate Phospholipase-C, which in turn activates IP3 or DAG.
      Hope this helps!

      • Amy is Right March 22, 2014 at 2:18 pm #

        Amy is definitely right here…………

  4. Vivien November 4, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    Glorious. Why couldn’t my pharm professor in Vet school have explained it this way!?

  5. Sara November 15, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    This was super helpful! Easy to understand, hit on all the important info and not long-winded. Refreshing! Thank you!

  6. Maha Khan February 11, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    kindly also provide authentic refreneces (from research articles/books). As this material z realy helpful bt after providng da refrencez

  7. Sarah February 19, 2014 at 1:59 pm #

    Extremely helpful and very eloquently explained. Thank you!

  8. Doomsday April 1, 2014 at 12:52 am #


  9. Baloch izra May 14, 2014 at 11:16 am #

    Thanks for making my concept clear………. Great job

  10. honeymoiett June 20, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

    This was really helpful……thanks alot