GSBS Dissertations and Theses

Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Immunology and Microbiology



First Thesis Advisor

Leslie J. Berg, PhD


Signal Transduction, Protein-Tyrosine Kinases, Adaptive Immunity, Innate Immunity


Dissertations, UMMS; Signal Transduction; Protein-Tyrosine Kinases; Adaptive Immunity; Immunity, Innate


The cells and molecules that comprise the immune system are essential for mounting an effective response against microbes. A successful immune response limits pathology within the host while simultaneously eliminating the pathogen. The key to this delicate balance is the correct recognition of the pathogen and the appropriate response of immune cells. Cellular activation originates through receptors that relay information about the state of the microenvironment to different compartments within the cell. The rapid relay of information is called signal transduction and employs a network of signaling mediators such as kinases, phosphatases, adaptor molecules, and transcription factors. IL-2 inducible T cell kinase (Itk) is a non-receptor tyrosine kinase that is an integral component of signal transduction downstream of many immunoreceptors. This dissertation describes two distinct pathways that utilize Itk in both phases of the immune response.

T cells use the TCR to sense a multitude of peptide-based ligands and to transmit signals inside the cell to activate cellular function. In this regard, the diversity of ligands the T cells encounter can be portrayed as analog inputs. Once a critical threshold is met, signaling events transpire in close proximity to the plasma membrane to activate major downstream pathways in the cell. The majority of these pathways are digital in nature resulting in the on or off activation of T cells. We find, however, that altering the TCR signal strength that a T cell receives can result in an analog-based response. Here, the graded expression of a transcription factor, IRF4, is modulated through the activity of Itk. We link this graded response to an NFAT-mediated pathway in which the digital vs. analog nature has been previously uncharacterized. Finally, we demonstrate that the repercussions of an analog signaling pathway is the altered expression of a second transcription factor, Eomes, which is important in the differentiation and function of T cells. These results suggest that Itk is crucial in the modulation of TCR signal strength.

Mast cells primarily rely on the IgE-bound FcεR1 for pathogen recognition. Crosslinking this receptor activates mast cells and results in degranulation and cytokine production via an expansive signaling cascade. Upon stimulation, Itk is recruited to the plasma membrane and phosphorylated. Little else is known about how Itk operates inside of mast cells. We find that mast cells lacking Itk are hyperresponsive to FcεR1-mediated activation. This is most apparent in the amount of IL-4 and IL-13 produced in comparison to wild-type mast cells. Increased cytokine production was accompanied by elevated and sustained signaling downstream of the FcεR1. Finally, biochemical evidence demonstrates that Itk is part of an inhibitory complex containing the phosphatase SHIP-1. These results indicate a novel function for Itk as a negative regulator in FcεR1- mediated mast cell activation.



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