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The extracellular loops of Smoothened play a regulatory role in control of Hedgehog pathway activation
Candace E. Carroll, Suresh Marada, Daniel P. Stewart, J. Xiaoxi Ouyang, Stacey K. Ogden


The Hedgehog (Hh) signaling pathway plays an instructional role during development, and is frequently activated in cancer. Ligand-induced pathway activation requires signaling by the transmembrane protein Smoothened (Smo), a member of the G-protein-coupled receptor (GPCR) superfamily. The extracellular (EC) loops of canonical GPCRs harbor cysteine residues that engage in disulfide bonds, affecting active and inactive signaling states through regulating receptor conformation, dimerization and/or ligand binding. Although a functional importance for cysteines localized to the N-terminal extracellular cysteine-rich domain has been described, a functional role for a set of conserved cysteines in the EC loops of Smo has not yet been established. In this study, we mutated each of the conserved EC cysteines, and tested for effects on Hh signal transduction. Cysteine mutagenesis reveals that previously uncharacterized functional roles exist for Smo EC1 and EC2. We provide in vitro and in vivo evidence that EC1 cysteine mutation induces significant Hh-independent Smo signaling, triggering a level of pathway activation similar to that of a maximal Hh response in Drosophila and mammalian systems. Furthermore, we show that a single amino acid change in EC2 attenuates Hh-induced Smo signaling, whereas deletion of the central region of EC2 renders Smo fully active, suggesting that the conformation of EC2 is crucial for regulated Smo activity. Taken together, these findings are consistent with loop cysteines engaging in disulfide bonds that facilitate a Smo conformation that is silent in the absence of Hh, but can transition to a fully active state in response to ligand.

  • Accepted November 22, 2011.
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