Polyglutamine (polyQ) repeat expansion in the deubiquitinase ataxin-3 causes neurodegeneration in Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 3 (SCA3), one of nine inherited, incurable diseases caused by similar mutations. Ataxin-3's degradation is inhibited by its binding to the proteasome shuttle Rad23 through ubiquitin-binding site 2 (UbS2). Disrupting this interaction decreases levels of ataxin-3. Since reducing levels of polyQ proteins can decrease their toxicity, we tested whether genetically modulating the ataxin-3-Rad23 interaction regulates its toxicity in Drosophila. We found that exogenous Rad23 increases the toxicity of pathogenic ataxin-3, coincident with increased levels of the disease protein. Conversely, reducing Rad23 levels alleviates toxicity in this SCA3 model. Unexpectedly, pathogenic ataxin-3 with a mutated Rad23-binding site at UbS2, despite being present at markedly lower levels, proved to be more pathogenic than a disease-causing counterpart with intact UbS2. Additional studies established that the increased toxicity upon mutating UbS2 stems from disrupting the autoprotective role that pathogenic ataxin-3 has against itself, which depends on the co-chaperone, DnaJ-1. Our data reveal a previously unrecognized balance between pathogenic and potentially therapeutic properties of the ataxin-3-Rad23 interaction; they highlight this interaction as critical for the toxicity of the SCA3 protein, and emphasize the importance of considering protein context when pursuing suppressive avenues.
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