Background: Heat shock factor (HSF/HSF1) not only is the transcription factor primarily responsible for the transcriptional response of cells to physical and chemical stress but also coregulates other important signaling pathways. The factor mediates the stress-induced expression of heat shock or stress proteins (HSPs). HSF/HSF1 is inactive in unstressed cells and is activated during stress. Activation is accompanied by hyperphosphorylation of the factor. The regulatory importance of this phosphorylation has remained incompletely understood. Several previous studies on human HSF1 were concerned with phosphorylation on Ser303, Ser307 and Ser363, which phosphorylation appears to be related to factor deactivation subsequent to stress, and one study reported stress-induced phosphorylation of Ser230 contributing to factor activation. However, no previous study attempted to fully describe the phosphorylation status of an HSF/HSF1 in stressed cells and to systematically identify phosphoresidues involved in factor activation. The present study reports such an analysis for human HSF1 in heat-stressed cells.
Results: An alanine scan of all Ser, Thr and Tyr residues of human HSF1 was carried out using a validated transactivation assay, and residues phosphorylated in HSF1 were identified by mass spectrometry and sequencing. HSF1 activated by heat treatment was phosphorylated on Ser121, Ser230, Ser292, Ser303, Ser307, Ser314, Ser319, Ser326, Ser344, Ser363, Ser419, and Ser444. Phosphorylation of Ser326 but none of the other Ser residues was found to contribute significantly to activation of the factor by heat stress. Phosphorylation on Ser326 increased rapidly during heat stress as shown by experiments using a pSer326 phosphopeptide antibody. Heat stress-induced DNA binding and nuclear translocation of a S326A substitution mutant was not impaired in HSF1-negative cells, but the mutant stimulated HSP70 expression several times less well than wild type factor.
Conclusion: Twelve Ser residues but no Thr or Tyr residues were identified that were phosphorylated in heat-activated HSF1. Mutagenesis experiments and functional studies suggested that phosphorylation of HSF1 residue Ser326 plays a critical role in the induction of the factor's transcriptional competence by heat stress. PhosphoSer326 also contributes to activation of HSF1 by chemical stress. To date, no functional role could be ascribed to any of the other newly identified phosphoSer residues.