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Switch-like activation of Bruton’s tyrosine kinase by membrane-mediated dimerization

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The transformation of molecular binding events into cellular decisions is the basis of most biological signal transduction. A fundamental challenge faced by these systems is that reliance on protein-ligand chemical affinities alone generally results in poor sensitivity to ligand concentration, endangering the system to error. Here, we examine the lipid-binding pleckstrin homology and Tec homology (PH-TH) module of Bruton's tyrosine kinase (Btk). Using fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FCS) and membrane-binding kinetic measurements, we identify a phosphatidylinositol (3-5)-trisphosphate (PIP3) sensing mechanism that achieves switch-like sensitivity to PIP3 levels, surpassing the intrinsic affinity discrimination of PIP3:PH binding. This mechanism employs multiple PIP3 binding as well as dimerization of Btk on the membrane surface. Studies in live cells confirm that mutations at the dimer interface and peripheral site produce effects comparable to that of the kinase-dead Btk in vivo. These results demonstrate how a single protein module can institute an allosteric counting mechanism to achieve high-precision discrimination of ligand concentration. Furthermore, this activation mechanism distinguishes Btk from other Tec family member kinases, Tec and Itk, which we show are not capable of dimerization through their PH-TH modules. This suggests that Btk plays a critical role in the stringency of the B cell response, whereas T cells rely on other mechanisms to achieve stringency.

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