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Mechanisms of Mycobacterium tuberculosis Serine/Threonine Protein Kinase Activation

  • Author(s): Baer, Christina Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Alber, Tom
  • et al.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb) coordinates a wide variety of metabolic and cellular responses to changing external environments throughout the multiple stages of infection. Signaling kinases are critical for these responses. The Mtb genome encodes 11 Serine/Threonine Protein Kinases (STPKs) that function as important nodes of this sensing and response network, but the chemical and structural changes that mediate kinase activation have not been elucidated.

Autophosphorylation activates several of the Mtb STPKs, and kinase dimerization can activate receptor kinases for autophosphorylation through an allosteric dimer interface. Inter-kinase phosphorylation has been reported, but the function and specificity of these interactions remain unknown.

In this study, a biochemical approach was used to comprehensively map the cross-kinase trans-phosphorylation activity of the Mtb STPKs. The results reveal a pattern of kinase interactions that suggests each protein plays a distinct regulatory role in controlling cellular processes by phosphorylating other kinases.

The PknB and PknH STPKs act in vitro as master regulators that are activated only through autophosphorylation and also phosphorylate other STPKs. In contrast, the signal-transduction kinases PknE, PknJ and PknL are phosphorylated by the master regulatory STPKs and phosphorylate other kinases. The substrate STPKs PknA, PknD, PknF and PknK are phosphorylated by upstream STPKs, but do not phosphorylate other kinases. The delineation of the Mtb STPK signaling networks reveals for the first time the specific network of STPK phosphorylation that may mediate the intracellular signaling circuitry.

STPKS are activated and inhibited by phosphorylation at different residues. The regulatory role of the extensive Mtb STPK trans-phosphorylation network is unknown. Through mass spectrophotometry and mutagenesis, the amino acids targeted by each phosphorylation were identified. I find that key activation loop residues are the targets of both autophosphorylation and trans-phosphorylation. Mutation of the two conserved threonines in the activation loops of nine Mtb STPKs renders the kinases inactive. These results demonstrate that activation loop phosphorylation is a common mechanism of Mtb STPK activation.

To explore the structural implications of activation loop phosphorylation, I determined the crystal structures of the phosphorylated and unphosphorylated Mtb PknH kinase domain. The PknH kinase domain forms a back-to-back dimer observed previously in the structures of Mtb PknB and PknE. Amino-acid substitutions in the dimer interface fail to block kinase dimerization or autophosphorylation. Unexpectedly, the PknH activation loop is folded in the unphosphorylated form and disordered in the active, phosphorylated enzyme. These structures revealed that the back-to-back kinase dimer is a surprisingly stable structure that does not undergo global conformational changes with phosphorylation or nucleotide binding. Unlike the well-established, conformational regulatory mechanisms of eukaryotic STPKs, PknH activation may be a biochemical process mediated by changes in nucleotide affinity or activation loop disorder rather than remodeling of the overall kinase-domain architecture.

To establish the effects of stepwise phosphorylation of an Mtb STPK, I determined the structures of the PknK kinase domain modified with 0, 1, or multiple phosphoryl groups. PknK is one of the two solution STPKs in Mtb and is phosphorylated by multiple upstream kinases. Mass spectrophotometry revealed that the trans-phosphorylation and autophosphorylation reactions resulted in varying numbers of phosphate groups on this substrate protein. Crystal structures revealed that, like PknH, PknK does not undergo conformational remodeling following activation loop phosphorylation. Unlike many eukaryotic homologs, the unphosphorylated forms of PknH and PknK bind ATP analogs. These two examples suggest that phosphorylation activates the Mtb STPKs by directly changing the properties of the activation loop. Based on these results, I propose the testable new idea that activation loop phosphorylation may regulate the Mtb STPKs by directly changing the affinities for protein substrates or nucleotides. The absence of conformational remodeling of PknH and PknK upon activation loop phosphorylation implies that the prokaryotic and eukaryotic STPKs are regulated by different mechanisms.

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