Background. Plexins are transmembrane receptors for the semaphorin axon guidance molecules. Repulsive signals from semaphorin-bound plexins are critical for proper pathfinding and innervation of developing neurons. Plexin signals also play important roles in regulating cell migration, vascular patterning and immune responses. Malfunction of the plexin signaling pathways is implicated in a variety of diseases such as neurological disorders, cancer and autoimmune diseases, and plexins have emerged as new drug targets for these diseases. Essential to the signaling of plexins is their intracellular regions, which contain a R-Ras GTPase activating protein (GAP) domain. The GAP domain contributes to plexin-mediated axon guidance by inactivating R-Ras, which leads to inactivation of integrin and loss of cell adhesion. The plexin GAP domain is normally kept inactive, and its activation requires simultaneous binding of semaphorin and a RhoGTPase (Rac1, RhoD or Rnd1) to the extracellular region and the intracellular RhoGTPase binding domain (RBD) of the receptor, respectively. Objectives. The goal of this research program is to understand the molecular mechanisms of autoinhibition and activation of the plexin GAP domain. Research Design. We use X-ray crystallography in combination with biochemical and cell biological approaches to study the mechanisms. We have solved the crystal structure of the intracellular domain of plexin A3. The structure shows that the GAP domain adopts an inactive conformation, and suggests that the RBD and a N-terminal segment contribute to stabilization of this autoinhibited state. Our analyses of the structures also led to a hypothesis that the plexin intracellular domain can form a specific dimer when plexin is induced to dimerize by semaphorin, and binding of a RhoGTPase to the RBDs of this dimeric plexin allosterically induces a conformational change in the GAP domain which triggers its activation. This proposal is centered around testing this model.
In Aim 1 we will perform mutational analyses of the autoinhibition mechanism using a biochemical GAP assay and a cell-based assay. We will also pursue crystal structures of other plexin family members.
In Aim 2 we will use the same GAP assay and cell-based assay to test the activation mechanism involving both dimerization and RhoGTPase binding.
In Aim 3 we will study the activation mechanism for the GAP domain by determining structures of the plexin intracellular domains in complex with RhoGTPases and R-Ras. These studies together will reveal the molecular basis for the autoinhibition and activation of the plexin GAP domain, and provide new routes to future drug design for diseases associated with plexin malfunction.

Public Health Relevance

Plexins are important signaling proteins expressed on the cell surface that participate in guiding the axons of neurons to their proper targets, which is critical for the development of the neural network in our bodies. Malfunction of plexins is implicated in various diseases such as neurological disorders, autoimmune diseases and cancer. The goal of this study is to elucidate the regulation mechanisms for the intracellular GTPase activating protein domain that is essential to the signaling function of plexins.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS)
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Macromolecular Structure and Function C Study Section (MSFC)
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Flicker, Paula F
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University of Texas Sw Medical Center Dallas
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