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Yanyu Wang

Advisor: Kevin Morano, Ph.D.

Accepted post-doctoral position at Texas A&M Health Science Center after receiving PhD

Cells govern their activities and modulate their interactions with the environment to achieve homeostasis. The heat shock response (HSR) is one of the most well studied fundamental cellular responses to environmental and physiological challenges, resulting in rapid synthesis of heat shock proteins (HSPs), which serve to protect cellular constituents from the deleterious effects of stress. In addition to its role in cytoprotection, the HSR also influences lifespan and is associated with a variety of human diseases including cancer, aging and neurodegenerative disorders. In all eukaryotes, the HSR is primarily mediated by the highly conserved transcription factor HSF1, which recognizes target hsp genes by binding to heat shock elements (HSEs) in their promoters. In recent years, significant efforts have been made to identify small molecules as potential pharmacological activators of HSF1 that could be used for therapeutic benefit in the treatment of human diseases relevant to protein conformation. However, the detailed mechanisms through which these molecules drive HSR activation remain unclear.

In this work, I utilized the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a model system to identify a group of thiol-reactive molecules including oxidants, transition metals and metalloids, and electrophiles, as potent activators of yeast Hsf1. Using an artificial HSE-lacZ reporter and the glucocorticoid receptor system (GR), these diverse thiol-reactive compounds are shown to activate Hsf1 and inhibit Hsp90 chaperone complex activity in a reciprocal, dose-dependent manner. To further understand whether cells sense these reactive compounds through accumulation of unfolded proteins, the proline analog azetidine-2-carboxylic acid (AZC) and protein cross-linker dithiobis(succinimidyl propionate) (DSP) were used to force misfolding of nascent polypeptides and existing cytosolic proteins, respectively. Both unfolding reagents display kinetic HSP induction profiles dissimilar to those generated by thiol-reactive compounds. Moreover, AZC treatment leads to significant cytotoxicity, which is not observed in the presence of the thiol-reactive compounds at the concentrations sufficient to induce Hsf1. Additionally, DSP treatment has little to no effect on Hsp90 functions. Together with the ultracentrifugation analysis of cell lysates that detected no insoluble protein aggregates, my data suggest that at concentrations sufficient to induce Hsf1, thiol-reactive compounds do not induce the HSR via a mechanism based on accumulation of unfolded cytosolic proteins. Another possibility is that thiol-reactive compounds may influence aspects of the protein quality control system such as the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS). To address this hypothesis, β-galactosidase reporter fusions were used as model substrates to demonstrate that thiol-reactive compounds do not inhibit ubiquitin activating enzymes (E1) or proteasome activity. Therefore, thiol-reactive compounds do not activate the HSR by inhibiting UPS-dependent protein degradation.

I therefore hypothesized that these molecules may directly inactivate protein chaperones, known as repressors of Hsf1. To address this possibility, a thiol-reactive biotin probe was used to demonstrate in vitro that the yeast cytosolic Hsp70 Ssa1, which partners with Hsp90 to repress Hsf1, is specifically modified. Strikingly, mutation of conserved cysteine residues in Ssa1 renders cells insensitive to Hsf1 activation by cadmium and celastrol but not by heat shock. Conversely, substitution with the sulfinic acid and steric bulk mimic aspartic acid led to constitutive activation of Hsf1. Cysteine 303, located in the nucleotide-binding/ATPase domain of Ssa1, was shown to be modified in vivo by a model organic electrophile using Click chemistry technology, verifying that Ssa1 is a direct target for thiol-reactive compounds through adduct formation. Consistently, cadmium pretreatment promoted cells thermotolerance, which is abolished in cells carrying SSA1 cysteine mutant alleles. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that Hsp70 acts as a sensor to induce the cytoprotective heat shock response in response to environmental or endogenously produced thiol-reactive molecules and can discriminate between two distinct environmental stressors.

Research Info

Regulation of the heat shock response by thiol-reactive compounds in yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae