An extended bipartite nuclear localization signal in Smad4 is required for its nuclear import and transcriptional activity

Oncogene. 2003 Feb 20;22(7):1057-69. doi: 10.1038/sj.onc.1206212.


Smad proteins are a class of tumor suppressors that play critical roles in inhibiting the proliferation of a variety of cell types by modulating the transcriptions of target genes. Despite recent advances, the mechanism of their nuclear import is not completely understood. Smad proteins contain a conserved basic motif in their N-terminal MH1 domains that resembles a nuclear localization signal (NLS). Previous studies indicate that in receptor-regulated Smads such as Smad1 and Smad3 this motif determines their interactions with nuclear import receptors and mediates their ligand-induced nuclear translocation. Common-Smads such as Smad4 display constant nucleocytoplasmic shuttling and are capable of autonomous nuclear import and export. Mutations of the basic motif in Smad4 disrupted its nuclear accumulation. However, this motif is not sufficient to confer nuclear translocation to a fused heterologous protein, suggesting that it is only part of the bona fide Smad4 NLS. We mapped the Smad4 NLS by fusing various segments of Smad4 sequence covering the basic motif to GFP and tested the localization of the fusion proteins. We identified an extended NLS, starting from the basic motif and extending into the DNA-binding region (AA 45-110), that is sufficient to confer nuclear localization to GFP. Among the 14 basic residues in the NLS, only four (K45, K46, K48 and R81) are critical for import. This NLS is critical not only for autonomous nuclear import of Smad4, but also for its nuclear translocation in the presence of activated R-Smads, further confirming the functional relevance of the Smad4 NLS in TGF-beta signal transduction. Structural modeling demonstrated that the four critical basic residues are all solvent exposed and map to a single localized segment on one surface of the Smad4 MH1 domain. Their distribution and spacing resemble a classical bipartite NLS. Smad4 displays specific binding to importin alpha through its MH1 domain, which was abrogated by loss-of-function mutations in Smad4 NLS. Finally, the Smad4 NLS is essential for its transcriptional activity since loss-of-function NLS mutants are also transcriptionally inactive.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Active Transport, Cell Nucleus
  • Amino Acid Motifs
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Binding Sites
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • DNA / metabolism
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / chemistry*
  • DNA-Binding Proteins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Kidney
  • Models, Molecular
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Mutagenesis, Site-Directed
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Sorting Signals / physiology*
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins / metabolism
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Signal Transduction
  • Smad3 Protein
  • Smad4 Protein
  • Trans-Activators / chemistry*
  • Trans-Activators / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic
  • Transfection
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / physiology


  • DNA-Binding Proteins
  • Protein Sorting Signals
  • Recombinant Fusion Proteins
  • SMAD3 protein, human
  • SMAD4 protein, human
  • Smad3 Protein
  • Smad4 Protein
  • Trans-Activators
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta
  • DNA