The Notch pathway is integrated into numerous developmental processes and therefore is fine-tuned on many levels, including receptor production, endocytosis, and degradation. Notch is further characterized by a twofold relationship with its Delta-Serrate (DSL) ligands, as ligands from opposing cells (trans-ligands) activate Notch, whereas ligands expressed in the same cell (cis-ligands) inhibit signaling. We show that cells without both cis- and trans-ligands can mediate Notch-dependent developmental events during Drosophila oogenesis, indicating ligand-independent Notch activity occurs when the receptor is free of cis- and trans-ligands. Furthermore, cis-ligands can reduce Notch activity in endogenous and genetically induced situations of elevated trans-ligand-independent Notch signaling. We conclude that cis-expressed ligands exert their repressive effect on Notch signaling in cases of trans-ligand-independent activation, and propose a new function of cis-inhibition which buffers cells against accidental Notch activity.
Many biological processes require cells to send messages to one another. Typically, this is achieved when molecules are released from one cell and make contact with companion molecules on another cell. This triggers a chemical or biological reaction in the receiving cell.
One of the most common examples of this is the Notch pathway, which is used throughout the animal kingdom and plays an important role in helping cells and embryos to develop. The Notch protein itself is a ‘receptor’ protein that is embedded in the surface of a cell, and relays signals from outside the cell to activate certain genes inside the cell. In fruit flies, two proteins called Serrate and Delta act as ‘ligands’ for Notch—by binding to Notch, they can change how this receptor works.
If Serrate or Delta are present on the outside of one cell, they can activate Notch (and hence the Notch signaling pathway) in an adjacent cell. However, if the Serrate or Delta ligands are present on the surface of the same cell as Notch they turn the receptor off, rather than activate it. Notch can also work without being activated by Serrate or Delta, but whether the ligands can inhibit this ‘ligand-independent’ Notch activation if they are on the surface of the same cell as the Notch receptor was unknown.
Palmer et al. study Notch signaling in the fruit fly equivalent of the ovary, in cells that are naturally deficient in Serrate and from which Delta was artificially removed. The Notch protein was activated when these ligands were not present. Furthermore, the developmental processes that are activated by Notch were able to proceed as normal when triggered by ligand-independent Notch signaling. In total, Palmer et al. investigated three different types of fruit fly cell, and found that ligand-independent Notch signaling can occur in all of them.
Reintroducing Delta to the same cell as Notch turns the receptor off, suggesting that ligands on the surface of the same cell as the receptor can inhibit ligand-independent Notch activity. Many genetic diseases and cancers have been linked to Notch being activated when it should not be; therefore, understanding how Notch is controlled could help guide the development of new treatments for these conditions.