Background: In 1952, Alan Turing suggested that spatial patterns could arise from homogeneous starting conditions by feedback amplification of stochastic fluctuations. One example of such self-organization, called symmetry breaking, involves spontaneous cell polarization in the absence of spatial cues. The conserved GTPase Cdc42p is essential for both guided and spontaneous polarization, and in budding yeast cells Cdc42p concentrates at a single site (the presumptive bud site) at the cortex. Cdc42p concentrates at a random cortical site during symmetry breaking in a manner that requires the scaffold protein Bem1p. The mechanism whereby Bem1p promotes this polarization was unknown.
Results: Here we show that Bem1p promotes symmetry breaking by assembling a complex in which both a Cdc42p-directed guanine nucleotide exchange factor (GEF) and a Cdc42p effector p21-activated kinase (PAK) associate with Bem1p. Analysis of Bem1p mutants indicates that both GEF and PAK must bind to the same molecule of Bem1p, and a protein fusion linking the yeast GEF and PAK bypasses the need for Bem1p. Although mammalian cells lack a Bem1p ortholog, they contain more complex multidomain GEFs that in some cases can directly interact with PAKs, and we show that yeast containing an artificial GEF with similar architecture can break symmetry even without Bem1p.
Conclusions: Yeast symmetry-breaking polarization involves a GEF-PAK complex that binds GTP-Cdc42p via the PAK and promotes local Cdc42p GTP-loading via the GEF. By generating fresh GTP-Cdc42p near pre-existing GTP-Cdc42p, the complex amplifies clusters of GTP-Cdc42p at the cortex. Our findings provide mechanistic insight into an evolutionarily conserved pattern-forming positive-feedback pathway.