Processing of EGF-family ligands is an essential step in triggering the EGF receptor pathway, which fulfills a diverse set of roles during development and tissue maintenance. We describe a mechanism of ligand processing which is unique to insects, and possibly to other invertebrates. This mechanism relies on ligand precursor trafficking from the ER by a chaperone, Star (S), and precursor cleavage by Rhomboids, a family of intra-membrane protease. Remarkably, the ability of Rhomboids to cleave S as well, endows the pathway with additional diversity. Rhomboid isoforms which also reside in the ER inactivate the chaperone before any ligand was trafficked, thus significantly reducing the level of ligand that will eventually be processed and secreted. ER localization also serves as a critical feature in trafficking the entire ligand-processing machinery to axonal termini, as the ER extends throughout the axon. Finally, examination of diverse species of insects demonstrates the evolution of chaperone cleavability, indicating that the primordial processing machinery could support long-range signaling by the ligand. Altering the intracellular localization of critical components of a conserved signaling cassette therefore provides an evolutionary mechanism for modulation of signaling levels, and diversification of the biological settings where the pathway functions.
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