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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Apr 15;111(15):5550-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1317178111. Epub 2014 Mar 31.

Crosstalk and the evolution of specificity in two-component signaling.

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Center for Bioinformatics and Department of Molecular Biosciences, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66047.


Two-component signaling (TCS) serves as the dominant signaling modality in bacteria. A typical pathway includes a sensor histidine kinase (HK) that phosphorylates a response regulator (RR), modulating its activity in response to an incoming signal. Most HKs are bifunctional, acting as both kinase and phosphatase for their substrates. Unlike eukaryotic signaling networks, there is very little crosstalk between bacterial TCS pathways; indeed, adding crosstalk to a pathway can have disastrous consequences for cell fitness. It is currently unclear exactly what feature of TCS necessitates this degree of pathway isolation. In this work we used mathematical models to show that, in the case of bifunctional HKs, adding a competing substrate to a TCS pathway will always reduce response of that pathway to incoming signals. We found that the pressure to maintain cognate signaling is sufficient to explain the experimentally observed "kinetic preference" of HKs for their cognate RRs. These findings imply a barrier to the evolution of new HK-RR pairs, because crosstalk is unavoidable immediately after the duplication of an existing pathway. We characterized a set of "near-neutral" evolutionary trajectories that minimize the impact of crosstalk on the function of the parental pathway. These trajectories predicted that crosstalk interactions should be removed before new input/output functionalities evolve. Analysis of HK sequences in bacterial genomes provided evidence that the selective pressures on the HK-RR interface are different from those experienced by the input domain immediately after duplication. This work thus provides a unifying explanation for the evolution of specificity in TCS networks.


bacterial signaling; network evolution; signal specificity

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