Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

First Thesis Advisor

Kai Lin, Ph.D.


DNA-Binding Proteins, Phosphorylation, Signal Transduction, Trans-Activators, Transforming Growth Factor beta


The Smad proteins transduce the signal of transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) and related factors from the cell surface to the nucleus. Following C-terminal phosphorylation by a corresponding receptor kinase, the R-Smad proteins form heteromeric complexes with Smad4. These complexes translocate into the nucleus, bind specific transcriptional activators and DNA, ultimately modulating gene expression. Though studied through a variety of means, the stoichiometry of the R-Smad/Smad4 complex is unclear. We investigated the stoichiometry of the phosphorylation-induced R-Smad/Smad4 complex by using acidic amino acid substitutions to simulate phosphorylation. Size exclusion chromatography, analytical ultracentrifugation, and isothermal titration calorimetry analysis revealed that the R-Smad/Smad4 complex is a heterotrimer consisting of two R-Smad subunits and one Smad4 subunit. In addition, a specific mechanism for phosphorylation-induced R-Smad/Smad4 complex formation was studied. Although it had been previously established that part of the mechanism through which phosphorylation induces Smad oligomerization is through relieving MH1-domain mediated autoinhibition of the MH2 (oligomerization) domain, it is also evident that phosphorylation serves to energetically drive Smad complex formation. Through mutational and size exclusion chromatography analysis, we established that phosphorylation induces oligomerization of the Smads by creating an electrostatic interaction between the phosphorylated C-terminal tail of one R-Smad subunit in a Smad trimer with a basic surface on an adjacent R-Smad or Smad4 subunit. The basic surface is defined largely by the L3 loop, a region that had previously been implicated in R-Smad interaction with the receptor kinase. Furthermore, the Smad MH2 domain shares a similar protein fold with the phosphoserine and phosphothreonine-binding FHA domains from proteins like Rad53 and Chk2. Taken together, these results suggest that the Smad MH2 domain may be a distinct phospho serine-binding domain, which utilizes a common basic surface to bind the receptor kinase and other Smads, and takes advantage of phosphorylation-induced allosteric changes dissociate from the receptor kinase and oligomerize with other Smads. Finally, the structural basis for the preferential formation of the R-Smad/Smad4 heterotrimeric complex over the R-Smad homotrimeric complex was explored through X-ray crystallography and isothermal titration calorimetry. Crystal structures of the Smad2/Smad4 and Smad3/Smad4 complexes revealed that specific residue differences in Smad4 compared to R-Smads resulted in highly favorable electrostatic interactions that explain the preference for the interaction with Smad4.


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