Matthew R. Pawlak, Adam T. Smiley, María Paz Ramirez, Marcus D. Kelly, Ghaidan A. Shamsan, Sarah M. Anderson, Branden A. Smeester, David A. Largaespada, David J. Odde, Wendy R. Gordon, Nature Communications, April 2023.

Mechanical forces drive critical cellular processes that are reflected in mechanical phenotypes, or mechanotypes, of cells and their microenvironment. We present here “Rupture And Deliver” Tension Gauge Tethers (RAD-TGTs) in which flow cytometry is used to record the mechanical history of thousands of cells exerting forces on their surroundings via their propensity to rupture immobilized DNA duplex tension probes. We demonstrate that RAD-TGTs recapitulate prior DNA tension probe studies while also yielding a gain of fluorescence in the force-generating cell that is detectable by flow cytometry. Furthermore, the rupture propensity is altered following disruption of the cytoskeleton using drugs or CRISPR-knockout of mechanosensing proteins. Importantly, RAD-TGTs can differentiate distinct mechanotypes among mixed populations of cells. We also establish oligo rupture and delivery can be measured via DNA sequencing. RAD-TGTs provide a facile and powerful assay to enable high-throughput mechanotype profiling, which could find various applications, for example, in combination with CRISPR screens and -omics analysis.


María Paz Ramirez, Sivaraman Rajaganapathy, Anthony R. Hagerty, Cailong Hua, Gloria C. Baxter, Joseph Vavra, Wendy R. Gordon, Joseph M. Muretta, Murti V. Salapaka, James M. Ervasti, Journal of Biological Chemistry, December 2022.

Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a lethal muscle wasting disease caused by the absence of the protein dystrophin. Utrophin is a dystrophin homologue currently under investigation as a protein replacement therapy for DMD. Dystrophin is hypothesized to function as a molecular shock absorber that mechanically stabilizes the sarcolemma. While utrophin is homologous with dystrophin from a molecular and biochemical perspective, we have recently shown that full-length utrophin expressed in eukaryotic cells is stiffer than what has been reported for dystrophin fragments expressed in bacteria. In this study, we show that differences in expression system impact the mechanical stiffness of a model utrophin fragment encoding the N-terminus through spectrin repeat 3 (UtrN-R3). We also demonstrate that UtrN-R3 expressed in eukaryotic cells was phosphorylated while bacterial UtrN-R3 was not detectably phosphorylated. Using atomic force microscopy, we show that phosphorylated UtrN-R3 exhibited significantly higher unfolding forces compared to unphosphorylated UtrN-R3 without altering its actin binding activity. Consistent with the effect of phosphorylation on mechanical stiffness, mutating the phosphorylated serine residues on insect eukaryotic protein to alanine decreased its stiffness to levels not different from unphosphorylated bacterial protein. Taken together, our data suggest that the mechanical properties of utrophin may be tuned by phosphorylation, with the potential to improve its efficacy as a protein replacement therapy for dystrophinopathies.

Adam T. Smiley, Kassidy J. Tompkins, Matthew R. Pawlak, August J. Krueger, Robert L. Evans III, Ke Shi, Hideki Aihara, Wendy R. Gordon, mBio, December 2022.

Replication-initiating HUH endonucleases (Reps) are sequence-specific nucleases that cleave and rejoin single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) during rolling-circle replication. These functions are mediated by covalent linkage of the Rep to its substrate post cleavage. Here, we describe the structures of the endonuclease domain from the Muscovy duck circovirus Rep in complex with its cognate ssDNA 10-mer with and without manganese in the active site. Structural and functional analyses demonstrate that divalent cations play both catalytic and structural roles in Reps by polarizing and positioning their substrate. Further structural comparisons highlight the importance of an intramolecular substrate Watson-Crick (WC) base pairing between the −4 and +1 positions. Subsequent kinetic and functional analyses demonstrate a functional dependency on WC base pairing between these positions regardless of the pair’s identity (i.e., A·T, T·A, G·C, or C·G), highlighting a structural specificity for substrate interaction. Finally, considering how well WC swaps were tolerated in vitro, we sought to determine to what extent the canonical −4T·+1A pairing is conserved in circular Rep-encoding single-stranded DNA viruses and found evidence of noncanonical pairings in a minority of these genomes. Altogether, our data suggest that substrate intramolecular WC base pairing is a universal requirement for separation and reunion of ssDNA in Reps.

Schematic of Bioluminescent Resonance Energy Transfer Tension Sensor (BRET-TS) inserted into vinculin in focal adhesions (VinTS)

María Paz Ramirez, Michael J.M. Anderson, Lauren J. Sundby, Anthony R. Hagerty, Sophia J. Wenthe, James M. Ervasti, and Wendy R. Gordon, PNAS, June 2022.

Dystrophin is an essential muscle protein that contributes to cell membrane stability by linking the actin cytoskeleton to the extracellular matrix. The absence or impaired function of dystrophin causes muscular dystrophy. Focal adhesions are mechanosensitive adhesion complexes that also connect the cytoskeleton to the extracellular matrix. However, the interplay between dystrophin and focal adhesion force transmission has not been investigated. Using a bioluminescent tension sensor, we measured focal adhesion tension in transgenic C2C12 myoblasts expressing wild type (WT) dystrophin, a non-pathogenic SNP (I232M), or two missense mutations associated with Duchenne (L54R), or Becker muscular dystrophy (L172H). We found that myoblasts expressing WT or nonpathogenic I232M dystrophin showed increased focal adhesion tension compared to non-transgenic myoblasts, while myoblasts expressing L54R or L172H dystrophin presented with decreased focal adhesion tension. Moreover, myoblasts expressing L54R or L172H dystrophin showed decreased YAP activation and exhibited slower and less directional migration compared to cells expressing WT or I232M dystrophin. Our results suggest that disease-causing missense mutations in dystrophin may disrupt a cellular tension sensing pathway in dystrophic skeletal muscle.


Eric J. Aird, Alina C. Zdechlik, Brian L. Ruis, Colette B. Rogers, Andrew L. Lemmex, Andrew T. Nelson, Eric A. Hendrickson, Daniel Schmidt, and Wendy R. Gordon, Biorxiv, 2021.

Prime editing brings immense promise to correct a large number of human pathogenic mutations and enact diverse edit types without introducing widespread undesired editing events. Delivery of prime editors in vivo would enable such edits to be introduced in a clinical setting. The coding sequence for prime editor, however, is too large to fit within the size-constrained adeno-associated virus (AAV) genome. Herein, we describe a split Staphylococcus aureus prime editor capable of being delivered by dual AAVs. We characterize the editing ability of plasmid-based versions of an S. aureus prime editor in vitro at a variety of loci with diverse edit types. We investigate various split prime editor architectures and alternative dimerization domains. Finally, we demonstrate the capacity of prime editor to be co-delivered by dual AAVs in vitro. While editing rates are lower than desired, this approach presents an important step to translate prime editing for in vivo delivery.

Kassidy J Tompkins, Mo Houtti, Lauren A Litzau, Eric J Aird, Blake A Everett, Andrew T Nelson, Leland Pornschloegl, Lidia K Limón-Swanson, Robert L Evans, III, Karen Evans, Ke Shi, Hideki Aihara, and Wendy R Gordon, Nucleic Acids Research, January 2021.

Replication initiator proteins (Reps) from the HUH-endonuclease superfamily process specific single-stranded DNA (ssDNA) sequences to initiate rolling circle/hairpin replication in viruses, such as crop ravaging geminiviruses and human disease causing parvoviruses. In biotechnology contexts, Reps are the basis for HUH-tag bioconjugation and a critical adeno-associated virus genome integration tool. We solved the first co-crystal structures of Reps complexed to ssDNA, revealing a key motif for conferring sequence specificity and for anchoring a bent DNA architecture. In combination, we developed a deep sequencing cleavage assay, termed HUH-seq, to interrogate subtleties in Rep specificity and demonstrate how differences can be exploited for multiplexed HUH-tagging. Together, our insights allowed engineering of only four amino acids in a Rep chimera to predictably alter sequence specificity. These results have important implications for modulating viral infections, developing Rep-based genomic integration tools, and enabling massively parallel HUH-tag barcoding and bioconjugation applications.


Bryan J. Jones, Robert L. Evans III, Nathan J. Mylrea, Debayan Chaudhury, Christine Luo, Bo Guan, Colin T. Pierce, Wendy R. Gordon, Carrie M. Wilmot, and Romas J. Kazlauskas, PLoS One, June 2020.

Hydroxynitrile lyases (HNL's) belonging to the α/β-hydrolase-fold superfamily evolved from esterases approximately 100 million years ago. Reconstruction of an ancestral hydroxynitrile lyase in the α/β-hydrolase fold superfamily yielded a catalytically active hydroxynitrile lyase, HNL1. Several properties of HNL1 differ from the modern HNL from rubber tree (HbHNL). HNL1 favors larger substrates as compared to HbHNL, is two-fold more catalytically promiscuous for ester hydrolysis (p-nitrophenyl acetate) as compared to mandelonitrile cleavage, and resists irreversible heat inactivation to 35 °C higher than for HbHNL. We hypothesized that the x-ray crystal structure of HNL1 may reveal the molecular basis for the differences in these properties. The x-ray crystal structure solved to 1.96-Å resolution shows the expected α/β-hydrolase fold, but a 60% larger active site as compared to HbHNL. This larger active site echoes its evolution from esterases since related esterase SABP2 from tobacco also has a 38% larger active site than HbHNL. The larger active site in HNL1 likely accounts for its ability to accept larger hydroxynitrile substrates. Site-directed mutagenesis of HbHNL to expand the active site increased its promiscuous esterase activity 50-fold, consistent with the larger active site in HNL1 being the primary cause of its promiscuous esterase activity. Urea-induced unfolding of HNL1 indicates that it unfolds less completely than HbHNL (m-value = 0.63 for HNL1 vs 0.93 kcal/mol·M for HbHNL), which may account for the ability of HNL1 to better resist irreversible inactivation upon heating. The structure of HNL1 shows changes in hydrogen bond networks that may stabilize regions of the folded structure.

K.J. Tompkins, N. Venkatesh, E.T. Berscheid, A.J. Adamek, A.P. Beckman, M.A. Esler, A.C. Evans, B.A. Everett, M. Houtti, H. Koo, L.A. Litzau, A.T. Nelson, T.M. Peterson, T.A. Reid, R.L. Evans III, and W.R. Gordon, Biorxiv, 2020.

Advanced biological molecule force probing methods such as atomic force microscopy and optical tweezers used to quantify forces at the single-molecule level are expensive and require extensive training and technical knowledge. However, the technologies underlying a centrifuge force microscope (CFM) are relatively straight forward, allowing for construction by labs with relatively low budgets and minimal training. Design ideas from previously constructed CFMs served as a guide in the development of this CFM. There were two primary goals: first, to develop an inexpensive, functional CFM using off-the-shelf and 3D printed parts; and second, to do so in the context of providing an educational experience for a broad range of students. The team included high school students and undergraduates from local high schools, the University of Minnesota, and other local higher education institutions. This project created an environment for student-focused development of the CFM that fostered active learning, individual ownership, as well as excellence in research. The instrument discussed herein represents a fully functional CFM designed and built by a postdoctoral researcher and a graduate student who together mentored several high school and undergraduate students.


Eric J. Aird, Kassidy J. Tompkins, María Paz Ramirez, and Wendy R. Gordon, ACS Sensors, 2019.

Molecular tension sensors measure piconewton forces experienced by individual proteins in the context of the cellular microenvironment. Current genetically encoded tension sensors use FRET to report on extension of a deformable peptide encoded in a cellular protein of interest. Here, we present the development and characterization of a new type of molecular tension sensor based on bioluminescence resonance energy transfer (BRET), which exhibits more desirable spectral properties and an enhanced dynamic range compared to other molecular tension sensors. Moreover, it avoids many disadvantages of FRET measurements in cells, including autofluorescence, photobleaching, and corrections of direct acceptor excitation. We benchmark the sensor by inserting it into the canonical mechanosensing focal adhesion protein vinculin, observing highly resolved gradients of tensional changes across focal adhesions. We anticipate that the BRET tension sensor will expand the toolkit available to study mechanotransduction at a molecular level and allow potential extension to an in vivo context.

Zdechlik AC, He Y, Aird EJ, Gordon WR, and Daniel Schmidt, Bioconjugate Chemistry, December 2019.

Adeno-associated virus (AAV) has emerged as a viral gene delivery vector that is safe in humans, able to infect both dividing and arrested cells and drive long-term expression (>6 months). Unfortunately, the naturally evolved properties of many AAV serotypes-including low cell type specificity and largely overlapping tropism-are mismatched to applications that require cell type-specific infection, such as neural circuit mapping or precision gene therapy. A variety of approaches to redirect AAV tropism exist, but there is still the need for a universal solution for directing AAV tropism toward user-defined cellular receptors that does not require extensive case-by-case optimization and works with readily available components. Here, we report AAV engineering approaches that enable programmable receptor-mediated gene delivery. First, we genetically encode small targeting scaffolds into a variable region of an AAV capsid and show that this redirects tropism toward the receptor recognized by these targeting scaffolds and also renders this AAV variant resistant to neutralizing antibodies present in nonhuman primate serum. We then simplify retargeting of tropism by engineering the same variable loop to encode a HUH tag, which forms a covalent bond to single-stranded DNA oligos conjugated to store-bought antibodies. We demonstrate that retargeting this HUH-AAVs toward different receptors is as simple as "arming" a premade noninfective AAV template with a different antibody in a conjugation process that uses widely available reagents and requires no optimization or extensive purification. Composite antibody-AAV nanoparticles structurally separate tropism and payload encapsulation, allowing each to be engineered independently.

B. A. Everett, L. A. Litzau, K. Tompkins, K. Shi, A. Nelson, H. Aihara, R. L. Evans III, and W. R. Gordon, Acta Crystallographica F, 2019.

The Rep domain of Wheat dwarf virus (WDV Rep) is an HUH endonuclease involved in rolling-circle replication. HUH endonucleases coordinate a metal ion to enable the nicking of a specific ssDNA sequence and the subsequent formation of an intermediate phosphotyrosine bond. This covalent protein–ssDNA adduct makes HUH endonucleases attractive fusion tags (HUH-tags) in a diverse number of biotechnological applications. Solving the structure of an HUH endonuclease in complex with ssDNA will provide critical information about ssDNA recognition and sequence specificity, thus enabling rationally engineered protein–DNA interactions that are programmable. The structure of the WDV Rep domain reported here was solved in the apo state from a crystal diffracting to 1.24 Å resolution and represents an initial step in the direction of solving the structure of a protein–ssDNA complex.

Amanda N Hayward, Eric J Aird, and Wendy R Gordon, eLife, June 2019.

Proteolysis of transmembrane receptors is a critical cellular communication mechanism dysregulated in disease, yet decoding proteolytic regulation mechanisms of hundreds of shed receptors is hindered by difficulties controlling stimuli and unknown fates of cleavage products. Notch proteolytic regulation is a notable exception, where intercellular forces drive exposure of a cryptic protease site within a juxtamembrane proteolytic switch domain to activate transcriptional programs. We created a Synthetic Notch Assay for Proteolytic Switches (SNAPS) that exploits the modularity and unequivocal input/response of Notch proteolysis to screen surface receptors for other putative proteolytic switches. We identify several new proteolytic switches among receptors with structural homology to Notch. We demonstrate SNAPS can detect shedding in chimeras of diverse cell surface receptors, leading to new, testable hypotheses. Finally, we establish the assay can be used to measure modulation of proteolysis by potential therapeutics and offer new mechanistic insights into how DECMA-1 disrupts cell adhesion.

Beau R. Webber, Cara-lin Lonetree, Mitchell G. Kluesner, Matthew J. Johnson, Emily J. Pomeroy, Miechaleen D. Diers, Walker S. Lahr, Garrett M. Draper, Nicholas J. Slipek, Branden A. Smeester, Klaus N. Lovendahl, Amber N. McElroy, Wendy R. Gordon, Mark J. Osborn, and Branden S. Moriarity, Nature Communications, November 2019.

The fusion of genome engineering and adoptive cellular therapy holds immense promise for the treatment of genetic disease and cancer. Multiplex genome engineering using targeted nucleases can be used to increase the efficacy and broaden the application of such therapies but carries safety risks associated with unintended genomic alterations and genotoxicity. Here, we apply base editor technology for multiplex gene modification in primary human T cells in support of an allogeneic CAR-T platform and demonstrate that base editor can mediate highly efficient multiplex gene disruption with minimal double-strand break induction. Importantly, multiplex base edited T cells exhibit improved expansion and lack double strand break-induced translocations observed in T cells edited with Cas9 nuclease. Our findings highlight base editor as a powerful platform for genetic modification of therapeutically relevant primary cell types.


Eric J. Aird, Klaus N. Lovendahl, Amber St. Martin, Reuben S. Harris, and Wendy R. Gordon, Communications Biology, 2018.

The CRISPR-Cas9 system is a powerful genome-editing tool in which a guide RNA targets Cas9 to a site in the genome, where the Cas9 nuclease then induces a double-stranded break (DSB). The potential of CRISPR-Cas9 to deliver precise genome editing is hindered by the low efficiency of homology-directed repair (HDR), which is required to incorporate a donor DNA template encoding desired genome edits near the DSB. We present a strategy to enhance HDR efficiency by covalently tethering a single-stranded oligodeoxynucleotide (ssODN) to the Cas9-guide RNA ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complex via a fused HUH endonuclease, thus spatially and temporally co-localizing the DSB machinery and donor DNA. We demonstrate up to a 30-fold enhancement of HDR using several editing assays, including repair of a frameshift and in-frame insertions of protein tags. The improved HDR efficiency is observed in multiple cell types and target loci and is more pronounced at low RNP concentrations.

L. Tyler Mix, Elizabeth C. Carroll, Dmitry Morozov, Jie Pan, Wendy Ryan Gordon, Andrew Philip, Jack Fuzell, Masato Kumauchi, Ivo van Stokkum, Gerrit Groenhof, Wouter D. Hoff, and Delmar S. Larsen, Biochemistry, February 2018.

Photoactive yellow proteins (PYPs) make up a diverse class of blue-light-absorbing bacterial photoreceptors. Electronic excitation of the p-coumaric acid chromophore covalently bound within PYP results in triphasic quenching kinetics; however, the molecular basis of this behavior remains unresolved. Here we explore this question by examining the excitation-wavelength dependence of the photodynamics of the PYP from Halorhodospira halophila via a combined experimental and computational approach. The fluorescence quantum yield, steady-state fluorescence emission maximum, and cryotrapping spectra are demonstrated to depend on excitation wavelength. We also compare the femtosecond photodynamics in PYP at two excitation wavelengths (435 and 475 nm) with a dual-excitation-wavelength-interleaved pump–probe technique. Multicompartment global analysis of these data demonstrates that the excited-state photochemistry of PYP depends subtly, but convincingly, on excitation wavelength with similar kinetics with distinctly different spectral features, including a shifted ground-state beach and altered stimulated emission oscillator strengths and peak positions. Three models involving multiple excited states, vibrationally enhanced barrier crossing, and inhomogeneity are proposed to interpret the observed excitation-wavelength dependence of the data. Conformational heterogeneity was identified as the most probable model, which was supported with molecular mechanics simulations that identified two levels of inhomogeneity involving the orientation of the R52 residue and different hydrogen bonding networks with the p-coumaric acid chromophore. Quantum calculations were used to confirm that these inhomogeneities track to altered spectral properties consistent with the experimental results.

Klaus N. Lovendahl, Stephen C. Blacklow, and Wendy R. Gordon, Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, July 2018.

Research in the last several years has shown that Notch proteolysis, and thus Notch activation, is conformationally controlled by the extracellular juxtamembrane NRR of Notch, which sterically occludes the S2 protease site until ligand binds. The question of how conformational exposure of the protease site is achieved during physiologic activation, and thus how normal activation is bypassed in disease pathogenesis, has been the subject of intense study in the last several years, and is the subject of this chapter. Here, we summarize the structural features of the NRR domains of Notch receptors that establish the autoinhibited state and then review a number of recent studies aimed at testing the mechanotransduction model for Notch signaling using force spectroscopy and molecular tension sensors.


Klaus N. Lovendahl, Amanda N. Hayward, and Wendy R. Gordon, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2017.

We present a robust strategy to covalently link proteins and DNA using HUH-endonuclease domains as fusion partners (HUH-tags). We show that HUH-tags react robustly with specific sequences of unmodified single-stranded DNA, and we have identified five tags that react orthogonally with distinct DNA sequences. We demonstrate the versatility of HUH-tags as fusion partners in Cas9-mediated gene editing and the construction of doubly DNA-tethered proteins for single-molecule studies. Finally we demonstrate application to cellular imaging in live and fixed cells.


Wendy R. Gordon, Brandon Zimmerman, Li He, Laura, J. Miles, Jiuhong Huang, Kittichoat Tiyanont, Debbie G. McArthur, Jon C. Aster, Norbert Perrimon, Joseph J. Loparo, and Stephen C. Blacklow, Developmental Cell, June 2015.

Ligands stimulate Notch receptors by inducing regulated intramembrane proteolysis (RIP) to produce a transcriptional effector. Notch activation requires unmasking of a metalloprotease cleavage site remote from the site of ligand binding, raising the question of how proteolytic sensitivity is achieved. Here, we show that application of physiologically relevant forces to the Notch1 regulatory switch results insensitivity to metalloprotease cleavage, and bound ligands induce Notch signal transduction in cells only in the presence of applied mechanical force.Synthetic receptor-ligand systems that remove the native  ligand-receptor  interaction  also  activate Notch by inducing proteolysis of the regulatory switch. Together, these studies show that mechanical force exerted by signal-sending cells is required for ligand-induced Notch activation and establish that force-induced proteolysis can act as a mechanism of cellular mechanotransduction.

Wendy R. Gordon and Jon C. Aster, Methods in Molecular Biology, June 2014. 

In recent years, several groups have reported the development of antibodies that inhibit or activate Notch signaling. Modulatory antibodies are valuable experimental tools that permit specific targeting of individual Notch receptor homologs (in contrast to pan-Notch-receptor inhibitors like gamma-secretase inhibitors), and show promise as therapeutic agents. Typically, Notch responsive luciferase reporter assays are used to validate and characterize modulatory antibodies. We describe detailed methods for performing dual luciferase-based signaling assays to read out modulation of Notch activity by antibodies designed to inhibit/activate signaling.

Wendy R. Gordon, Duhee Bang, Wouter D. Hoff, and Stephen B. H. Kent, Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry, June 2013.

The Photoactive Yellow Protein (PYP) is a structural prototype for the PAS superfamily of proteins, which includes hundreds of receptor and regulatory proteins from all three kingdoms of life. PYP itself is a small globular protein that undergoes a photocycle involving a series of conformational changes in response to light excitation of its p-coumaric acid chromophore, making it an excellent model system to study the molecular basis of signaling in the PAS super family. To enable novel chemical approaches to elucidating the structural changes that accompany signaling in PYP, we have chemically synthesized the 125 amino acid residue protein molecule using a combination of Boc chemistry solid phase peptide synthesis and native chemical ligation. Synthetic PYP exhibits the wildtype photocycle, as determined in photobleaching studies. Planned future studies include incorporation of site-specific isotopic labels into specific secondary structural elements to determine which structural elements are involved in signaling state formation using difference FTIR spectroscopy.

Miguel Aste-Amézaga, Ningyan Zhang, Janet E. Lineberger, Beth A. Arnold, Timothy J. Toner, Mingcheng Gu, Lingyi Huang, Salvatore Vitelli, Kim T. Vo, Peter Haytko, Jing Zhang Zhao, Frederic Baleydier, Sarah L'Heureux, Hongfang Wang, Wendy R. Gordon, Elizabeth Thoryk, Marie Blanke Andrawes, Kittichoat Tiyanont, Kimberly Stegmaier, Giovanni Roti, Kenneth N. Ross, Laura L. Franlin, Hui Wang, Fubao Wang, Michael Chastain, Andrew J. Bett, Laurent P. Audoly, Jon C. Aster, Stephen C. Blacklow, and Hans E. Huber, PLoS One, February 2010.

Ligands stimulate Notch receptors by inducing regulated intramembrane proteolysis (RIP) to produce a transcriptional effector. Notch activation requires un- masking of a metalloprotease cleavage site remote from the site of ligand binding, raising the question of how proteolytic sensitivity is achieved. Here, we show that application of physiologically relevant forces to the Notch1 regulatory switch results in sensitivity to metalloprotease cleavage, and bound ligands induce Notch signal transduction in cells only in the presence of applied mechanical force. Synthetic receptor-ligand systems that remove the native ligand-receptor interaction also activate Notch by inducing proteolysis of the regulatory switch. Together, these studies show that mechani- cal force exerted by signal-sending cells is required for ligand-induced Notch activation and establish that force-induced proteolysis can act as a mechanism of cellular mechanotransduction.

Wendy R. Gordon, Didem Vardar-Ulu, Sarah L'Heureux, Todd Ashworth, Michael J. Malecki, Cheryll Sanchez-Irizarry, Debbie G. McArthur, Gavin Histen, Jennifer L. Mitchell, Jon C. Aster, and Stephen C. Blacklow, PLoS One, August 2009.

Notch receptors are normally cleaved during maturation by a furin-like protease at an extracellular site termed S1, creating a heterodimer of non-covalently associated subunits. The S1 site lies within a key negative regulatory region (NRR) of the receptor, which contains three highly conserved Lin12/Notch repeats and a heterodimerization domain (HD) that interact to prevent premature signaling in the absence of ligands. Because the role of S1 cleavage in Notch signaling remains unresolved, we investigated the effect of S1 cleavage on the structure, surface trafficking and ligand-mediated activation of human Notch1 and Notch2, as well as on ligand-independent activation of Notch1 by mutations found in human leukemia.

Kang Li, Yucheng Li, Wenjuan Wu, Wendy R. Gordon, David W. Chang, Mason Lu, Shane Scoggin, Tihui Fu, Long Vien, Gavin Histen, Ji Zheng, Rachel Martin-Hollister, Thomas Duensing, Sanjaya Singh, Stephen C. Blacklow, Zhengbin Yao, Jon C. Aster, and Bin-Bing S. Zhou, Molecular Basis of Cell and Developmental Biology, March 2008.

The Notch pathway regulates the development of many tissues and cell types and is involved in a variety of human diseases, making it an attractive potential therapeutic target. This promise has been limited by the absence of potent inhibitors or agonists that are specific for individual human Notch receptors (NOTCH1-4). Using an unbiased functional screening, we identified monoclonal antibodies that specifically inhibit or induce activating proteolytic cleavages in NOTCH3. Remarkably, the most potent inhibitory and activating antibodies bind to overlapping epitopes within a juxtamembrane negative regulatory region that protects NOTCH3 from proteolysis and activation in its resting autoinhibited state. The inhibitory antibodies revert phenotypes conveyed on 293T cells by NOTCH3 signaling, such as increased cellular proliferation, survival, and motility, whereas the activating antibody mimics some of the effects of ligand-induced Notch activation. These findings provide insights into the mechanisms of Notch autoinhibition and activation and pave the way for the further development of specific antibody-based modulators of the Notch receptors, which are likely to be of utility in a wide range of experimental and therapeutic settings.

Wendy R. Gordon, Kelly L. Arnett, and Stephen C. Blacklow, Journal of Cell Science, 2008.

The Notch signaling pathway constitutes an ancient and conserved mechanism for cell-cell communication in metazoan organisms, and has a central role both in development and in adult tissue homeostasis. Here, we summarize structural and biochemical advances that contribute new insights into three central facets of canonical Notch signal transduction: (1) ligand recognition, (2) autoinhibition and the switch from protease resistance to protease sensitivity, and (3) the mechanism of nuclear-complex assembly and the induction of target-gene transcription. These advances set the stage for future mechanistic studies investigating ligand-dependent activation of Notch receptors, and serve as a foundation for the development of mechanism-based inhibitors of signaling in the treatment of cancer and other diseases.

Wendy R. Gordon, Monideepa Roy, Didem Vardar-Ulu, Megan Garfinkel, Marc R. Mansour, Jon C. Aster, and Stephen C. Blacklow, Blood, 2009.

Proteolytic resistance of Notch prior to ligand binding depends on the structural integrity of a negative regulatory region (NRR) of the receptor that immediately precedes the transmembrane segment. The NRR includes the 3 Lin12/Notch repeats and the juxtamembrane heterodimerization domain, the region of Notch1 most frequently mutated in T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia lymphoma (T-ALL). Here, we report the x-ray structure of the Notch1 NRR in its autoinhibited conformation. A key feature of the Notch1 structure that maintains its closed conformation is a conserved hydrophobic plug that sterically occludes the metalloprotease cleavage site. Crystal packing interactions involving a highly conserved, exposed face on the third Lin12/Notch repeat suggest that this site may normally be engaged in intermolecular or intramolecular protein-protein interactions. The majority of known T-ALL–associated point mutations map to residues in the hydrophobic interior of the Notch1 NRR. A novel mutation (H1545P), which alters a residue at the crystal-packing interface, leads to ligand-independent increases in signaling in reporter gene assays despite only mild destabilization of the NRR, suggesting that it releases the autoinhibitory clamp on the heterodimerization domain imposed by the Lin12/Notch repeats. The Notch1 NRR structure should facilitate a search for antibodies or compounds that stabilize the autoinhibited conformation.

Wendy R. Gordon, Didem Vardar-Ulu, Gavin Histen, Cheryll Sanchez-Irizarry Jon C. Aster, and Stephen C. Blacklow, Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, 2007.

Notch receptors transmit signals between adjacent cells. Signaling is initiated when ligand binding induces metalloprotease cleavage of Notch within an extracellular negative regulatory region (NRR). We present here the X-ray structure of the human NOTCH2 NRR, which adopts an autoinhibited conformation. Extensive interdomain interactions within the NRR bury the metalloprotease site, showing that a substantial conformational movement is necessary to expose this site during activation by ligand. Leukemia-associated mutations in NOTCH1 probably release autoinhibition by destabilizing the conserved hydrophobic core of the NRR.