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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 May 4;107(18):8141-6. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1003166107. Epub 2010 Apr 19.

Transmembrane polar interactions are required for signaling in the Escherichia coli sensor kinase PhoQ.

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Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


PhoQ is the transmembrane sensor histidine kinase of the bacterial phoPQ two-component system, which detects and responds to divalent cations and to antimicrobial peptides, and can trigger virulence. Despite their ubiquitous importance in bacterial signaling, the structure and mechanism of the sensor kinases are not fully understood. In particular, the mechanism by which the signal is propagated through the transmembrane (TM) region remains unclear. We have identified a critical asparagine residue in the second TM helix of PhoQ. Replacement of this Asn202 with a variety of hydrophobic amino acids results in a protein that is blind to signal, fails to activate transcription of PhoQ-dependent genes, and abrogates transcription when coexpressed with wild-type PhoQ. Analysis of other two-component kinase sequences indicated that many such proteins contain similarly conserved polar residues, and the structure of one such domain shows a polar residue proximal to an extended cavity near the center of the TM bundle. We therefore examined the role of Asn202 in PhoQ. Our analysis indicated that its kinase function is dependent on the polarity of Asn202, rather than its precise structure or position in the TM region; it can be displaced up or down one turn of TM helix 2, or even moved to the adjacent TM helix 1. The presence of polar TM amino acids among many diverse sensor kinases suggest a widespread mechanism of two-component signal transduction; we speculate that they might stabilize underpacked water-containing cavities that can accommodate conformational changes required for switching from phosphatase to kinase-competent conformations.

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