Phosphorylation is a major regulator of protein interactions; however, the mechanisms by which regulation occurs are not well understood. Here we identify a salt-bridge competition or "theft" mechanism that enables a phospho-triggered swap of protein partners by Raf Kinase Inhibitory Protein (RKIP). RKIP transitions from inhibiting Raf-1 to inhibiting G-protein-coupled receptor kinase 2 upon phosphorylation, thereby bridging MAP kinase and G-Protein-Coupled Receptor signaling. NMR and crystallography indicate that a phosphoserine, but not a phosphomimetic, competes for a lysine from a preexisting salt bridge, initiating a partial unfolding event and promoting new protein interactions. Structural elements underlying the theft occurred early in evolution and are found in 10% of homo-oligomers and 30% of hetero-oligomers including Bax, Troponin C, and Early Endosome Antigen 1. In contrast to a direct recognition of phosphorylated residues by binding partners, the salt-bridge theft mechanism represents a facile strategy for promoting or disrupting protein interactions using solvent-accessible residues, and it can provide additional specificity at protein interfaces through local unfolding or conformational change.
Keywords: Raf Kinase Inhibitory Protein; conformational change; phospho-swap; protein interaction; salt-bridge competition.