Comprehensive profiling of the STE20 kinase family defines features essential for selective substrate targeting and signaling output

PLoS Biol. 2019 Mar 21;17(3):e2006540. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.2006540. eCollection 2019 Mar.


Specificity within protein kinase signaling cascades is determined by direct and indirect interactions between kinases and their substrates. While the impact of localization and recruitment on kinase-substrate targeting can be readily assessed, evaluating the relative importance of direct phosphorylation site interactions remains challenging. In this study, we examine the STE20 family of protein serine-threonine kinases to investigate basic mechanisms of substrate targeting. We used peptide arrays to define the phosphorylation site specificity for the majority of STE20 kinases and categorized them into four distinct groups. Using structure-guided mutagenesis, we identified key specificity-determining residues within the kinase catalytic cleft, including an unappreciated role for the kinase β3-αC loop region in controlling specificity. Exchanging key residues between the STE20 kinases p21-activated kinase 4 (PAK4) and Mammalian sterile 20 kinase 4 (MST4) largely interconverted their phosphorylation site preferences. In cells, a reprogrammed PAK4 mutant, engineered to recognize MST substrates, failed to phosphorylate PAK4 substrates or to mediate remodeling of the actin cytoskeleton. In contrast, this mutant could rescue signaling through the Hippo pathway in cells lacking multiple MST kinases. These observations formally demonstrate the importance of catalytic site specificity for directing protein kinase signal transduction pathways. Our findings further suggest that phosphorylation site specificity is both necessary and sufficient to mediate distinct signaling outputs of STE20 kinases and imply broad applicability to other kinase signaling systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Catalysis
  • Cell Line
  • Humans
  • Mutagenesis / genetics
  • Mutagenesis / physiology
  • Phosphorylation / genetics
  • Phosphorylation / physiology
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / genetics
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction / genetics
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • p21-Activated Kinases / genetics
  • p21-Activated Kinases / metabolism*


  • STK26 protein, human
  • Protein Serine-Threonine Kinases
  • p21-Activated Kinases