Polarization of early embryos provides a foundation to execute essential patterning and morphogenetic events. In Caenorhabditis elegans, cell contacts polarize early embryos along their radial axis by excluding the cortical polarity protein PAR-6 from sites of cell contact, thereby restricting PAR-6 to contact-free cell surfaces. Radial polarization requires the cortically enriched Rho GTPase CDC-42, which in its active form recruits PAR-6 through direct binding. The Rho GTPase activating protein (RhoGAP) PAC-1, which localizes specifically to cell contacts, triggers radial polarization by inactivating CDC-42 at these sites. The mechanisms responsible for activating CDC-42 at contact-free surfaces are unknown. Here, in an overexpression screen of Rho guanine nucleotide exchange factors (RhoGEFs), which can activate Rho GTPases, we identify CGEF-1 and ECT-2 as RhoGEFs that act through CDC-42 to recruit PAR-6 to the cortex. We show that ECT-2 and CGEF-1 localize to the cell surface and that removing their activity causes a reduction in levels of cortical PAR-6. Through a structure-function analysis, we show that the tandem DH-PH domains of CGEF-1 and ECT-2 are sufficient for GEF activity, but that regions outside of these domains target each protein to the cell surface. Finally, we provide evidence suggesting that the N-terminal region of ECT-2 may direct its in vivo preference for CDC-42 over another known target, the Rho GTPase RHO-1. We propose that radial polarization results from a competition between RhoGEFs, which activate CDC-42 throughout the cortex, and the RhoGAP PAC-1, which inactivates CDC-42 at cell contacts.
Keywords: CDC-42; Caenorhabditis elegans; Cell polarity; ECT-2; RhoGEF.