Hearing sensitivity in mammals is enhanced by more than 40 dB (that is, 100-fold) by mechanical amplification thought to be generated by one class of cochlear sensory cells, the outer hair cells1-4. In addition to the mechano-electrical transduction required for auditory sensation, mammalian outer hair cells also perform electromechanical transduction, whereby transmembrane voltage drives cellular length changes at audio frequencies in vitro5-7. This electromotility is thought to arise through voltage-gated conformational changes in a membrane protein8,9, and prestin has been proposed as this molecular motor10-12. Here we show that targeted deletion of prestin in mice results in loss of outer hair cell electromotility in vitro and a 40-60 dB loss of cochlear sensitivity in vivo, without disruption of mechano-electrical transduction in outer hair cells. In heterozygotes, electromotility is halved and there is a twofold (about 6 dB) increase in cochlear thresholds. These results suggest that prestin is indeed the motor protein, that there is a simple and direct coupling between electromotility and cochlear amplification, and that there is no need to invoke additional active processes to explain cochlear sensitivity in the mammalian ear.
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