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Xue-Nong Zhang

Advisor: John Spudich, Ph.D.

Sensory rhodopsins I and II (SRI and SRII) are visual pigment-like phototaxis receptors in the archaeon Halobacterium salinarum. The receptor proteins each consist of a single polypeptide that folds into 7 a-helical membrane-spanning segments forming an internal pocket where the chromophore retinal is bound. They transmit signals to their tightly bound transducer proteins, HtrI and HtrII, respectively, which in turn control a phosphotransfer pathway modulating the flagellar motors. SRI-HtrI mediates attractant responses to orange-light and repellent responses to UV light while SRII-HtrII mediates repellent response to blue light. Experiments are designed to analyze the molecular processes in the SR-Htr complexes responsible for receptor activation, which previously had been shown by our laboratory to involve proton transfer reactions of the retinylidene Schiff base in the photoactive site, transfer of signals from receptor to transducer, and signaling specificity by the receptor-transducer complex.

Site-directed mutagenesis and laser-flash kinetic spectroscopy revealed that His-166 in SRI (i) plays a role in the proton transfers both to and from the Schiff base, either as a structurally critical residue or possibly as a direct participant, (ii) is involved in the modulation of SRI photoreaction kinetics by HtrI and (iii) modulates the pKa of Asp-76, an important residue in the photoactive site, through a long distance electrostatic interaction. Computerized cell tracking and motion analysis demonstrated that (iv) His-166 is crucial in phototaxis signaling: a spectrum of substitutions either eliminate signaling or greatly perturb the activation process that produces attractant and repellent signaling states of the receptor.

The signaling states of SRI are communicated to HtrI, whose oligomeric structure and conformational changes were investigated by engineered sulfhydryl probes. It was found that signaling by the SRI-HtrI complex involves reversible conformational changes within a preexisting HtrI dimer, which is likely accomplished through a slight winding or unwinding of the two HtrI monomers via their loose coiled coil association. To elucidate which domains of the Htr dimers confer specificity for interaction with SRI or SRII, chimeras of HtrI and HtrII were constructed. The only determinant needed for functional and specific interaction with SRI or SRII was found to be the four transmembrane segments of the HtrI or HtrII dimers, respectively. The entire cytoplasmic parts of HtrI and HtrII, which include the functionally important signaling and adaptation domains, were interchangeable.
These observations support a model in which SRI and SRII undergo conformational changes coupled to light-induced proton transfers in their photoactive sites, and that lateral helix-helix interactions with their cognate transducers’ 4-helix bundle in the membrane relay these conformational changes into different states of the Htr proteins which regulate the down-stream phosphotransfer pathway.

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Research Info

Phototaxis Signaling by the Membrane Complex of Archaeal Sensory Rhodopsins and Their Transducers