Anchoring proteins sequester kinases with their substrates to locally disseminate intracellular signals and avert indiscriminate transmission of these responses throughout the cell. Mechanistic understanding of this process is hampered by limited structural information on these macromolecular complexes. A-kinase anchoring proteins (AKAPs) spatially constrain phosphorylation by cAMP-dependent protein kinases (PKA). Electron microscopy and three-dimensional reconstructions of type-II PKA-AKAP18γ complexes reveal hetero-pentameric assemblies that adopt a range of flexible tripartite configurations. Intrinsically disordered regions within each PKA regulatory subunit impart the molecular plasticity that affords an ∼16 nanometer radius of motion to the associated catalytic subunits. Manipulating flexibility within the PKA holoenzyme augmented basal and cAMP responsive phosphorylation of AKAP-associated substrates. Cell-based analyses suggest that the catalytic subunit remains within type-II PKA-AKAP18γ complexes upon cAMP elevation. We propose that the dynamic movement of kinase sub-structures, in concert with the static AKAP-regulatory subunit interface, generates a solid-state signaling microenvironment for substrate phosphorylation.
It was once thought that proteins needed to have structures that were both ordered and stable, but this view was changed by the discovery that certain proteins contain regions that are disordered and flexible. In some cases these regions of intrinsic disorder help the protein to function by linking more stable regions that are active. However, in other proteins the disordered regions are themselves biologically active and can, for example, function as enzymes.
Protein kinase A is a family of enzymes that contains both ordered and disordered regions, with the ordered sections being involved in phosphorylation, a chemical process that is widely used for communication within cells. However, in order to initiate phosphorylation, these kinases must be anchored to a rigid substrate nearby, so a second group of proteins called AKAPs–which is short for A-kinase anchoring proteins–hold the kinases in place by binding to their disordered regions. These AKAPs also help the kinases to dock with other molecules involved in phosphorylation.
A full structural picture of how the kinases induce phosphorylation has yet to be obtained, partly because it is extremely difficult to determine the structure of the disordered regions within the kinases. Moreover, the AKAPs are also disordered, which makes it difficult to work out how the kinases are held in position.
Smith, Reichow et al. have used electron microscopy to reveal that the disordered region has two important roles: it determines how far away from the anchoring protein that the active region of the kinase can operate, and it influences how efficiently the kinase can bind to its target molecule in order to induce phosphorylation. Future challenges include investigating how the inherent flexibility of AKAP complexes contribute to the efficient phosphorylation of physiological targets.