Characterizing the Molecular Mechanisms of Axon Guidance: Activation and Regulation of the Axon Guidance Receptor Plexin A




Yang, Taehong

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Neuronal connectivity is precisely determined by axonal pathfinding during development. The navigating axons detect attractive and repulsive environmental cues by axon guidance receptors. However, the biochemical means through which multiple signaling pathways are integrated in navigating axons is poorly understood. Semaphorins are the largest family of axon guidance cues and utilize Plexin receptors to exert repulsive effects on axon extension. The intracellular region of Plexins contains a Ras GTPase activating protein (GAP) domain, which is necessary for repulsive guidance effects. Previous studies suggest that activation of Plexin RasGAP requires interactions with both Semaphorin at the extracellular region and a Rho-family GTPase at the Rho family GTPase-binding domain (RBD). Interestingly, Semaphorin repulsion can be rapidly "turned-off" by other distinct cues and signaling cascades. However, the molecular mechanisms to activate or modulate Plexin RasGAP remain unclear. First, to further understand how the Plexin RasGAP is activated, I collaborated with the Zhang lab, and following determination of the crystal structure of the intracellular region of Plexin, I examined the roles of residues interfacing with the RasGAP domain using functional mutagenesis in the Drosophila model system. Our results demonstrate that Plexin exhibits an auto-inhibited conformation, and suggest that interaction among the previously uncharacterized juxtamembrane segment, the RBD, and the RasGAP domain is critical for Plexin RasGAP activation. Second, to better understand how Semaphorin/Plexin signaling is modulated, I characterized the results of a large-scale screen to look for proteins interacting with the cytoplasmic portion of Plexin and identified the phosphoserine binding protein 14-3-3epsilon as a specific Plexin-interacting protein. My results reveal that 14-3-3epsilon is specifically required for axon guidance during development. Moreover, Protein kinase A is found to phosphorylate Plexin in the RasGAP domain and mediates the 14-3-3epsilon interaction. Plexin-14-3-3epsilon interactions prevent Plexin from interacting with its Ras-family GTPase substrate, which effectively switches Plexin-mediated axonal repulsion to Integrin-mediated adhesion. These findings uncover both a new molecular integration point between important axon guidance signaling pathways and a biochemical logic by which this guidance information is coalesced to steer the growing axon. Therefore, these new observations on activating and silencing specific signals that are repulsive to axon growth also illuminate new approaches to neutralize axonal growth inhibition and encourage axon regeneration.

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