The mechanistic Target of Rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1) senses intracellular amino acid levels through an intricate machinery, which includes the Rag GTPases, Ragulator and vacuolar ATPase (V-ATPase). The membrane-associated E3 ubiquitin ligase ZNRF2 is released into the cytosol upon its phosphorylation by Akt. In this study, we show that ZNRF2 interacts with mTOR on membranes, promoting the amino acid-stimulated translocation of mTORC1 to lysosomes and its activation in human cells. ZNRF2 also interacts with the V-ATPase and preserves lysosomal acidity. Moreover, knockdown of ZNRF2 decreases cell size and cell proliferation. Upon growth factor and amino acid stimulation, mTORC1 phosphorylates ZNRF2 on Ser145, and this phosphosite is dephosphorylated by protein phosphatase 6. Ser145 phosphorylation stimulates vesicle-to-cytosol translocation of ZNRF2 and forms a novel negative feedback on mTORC1. Our findings uncover ZNRF2 as a component of the amino acid sensing machinery that acts upstream of Rag-GTPases and the V-ATPase to activate mTORC1.
During digestion, proteins are broken down into their constituent parts called amino acids. Amino acids are transported in the bloodstream and are used to build up new cells and repair old ones. Optimal regulation of the cellular rates of amino acid uptake and protein synthesis is critical to the overall health of our bodies.
Inside each of our cells is a molecule called mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR for short), which acts as a controller that receives information about amino acid availability. mTOR also senses how much of each amino acid the cell needs and calibrates the cell’s amino acid uptake and protein synthesis machineries accordingly.
When investigating an enzyme named ZNRF2, Hoxhaj et al. discovered that it interacts with mTOR on membranes inside cells. This raised questions about how ZNRF2 might work with mTOR to sense amino acid supplies and regulate cell growth.
Hoxhaj et al. found that when cells are provided with amino acids and growth-stimulating hormones, mTOR is activated and attaches a phosphate group to ZNRF2. This chemical modification promotes the release of ZNRF2 from membranes so that ZNRF2 separates from mTOR. In contrast, when cells are starved of amino acids, this phosphate group is removed from ZNRF2, which then returns to the membranes. On membranes, ZNRF2 also influences the activity of a pump called V-ATPase, which controls the internal acidity of the membrane-enclosed vesicles named lysosomes that help to recycle amino acids inside cells. The action of ZNRF2 on the pump may help to prime mTOR so that it is ready to sense amino acids.
These findings by Hoxhaj et al. suggest that ZNRF2 and mTOR may ‘tune’ each other, making constant to-and-fro adjustments to help ensure that levels of amino acid uptake and cell growth are set just right. However, many questions about ZNRF2 still remain to be addressed. For example, are genetic mutations in ZNRF2 involved in cancers, developmental disorders or growth syndromes? Is ZNRF2 most important in the brain, where it is particularly abundant? And how does ZNRF2 affect acidity within the lysosomes?