Background: Activins and bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) play critical, sometimes opposing roles, in multiple physiological and pathological processes and diseases. They signal to distinct Smad branches; activins signal mainly to Smad2/3, while BMPs activate mainly Smad1/5/8. This gives rise to the possibility that competition between the different type I receptors through which activin and BMP signal for common type II receptors can provide a mechanism for fine-tuning the cellular response to activin/BMP stimuli. Among the transforming growth factor-β superfamily type II receptors, ACVR2A/B are highly promiscuous, due to their ability to interact with different type I receptors (e.g., ALK4 vs. ALK2/3/6) and with their respective ligands [activin A (ActA) vs. BMP9/2]. However, studies on complex formation between these full-length receptors situated at the plasma membrane, and especially on the potential competition between the different activin and BMP type I receptors for a common activin type II receptor, were lacking.
Results: We employed a combination of IgG-mediated patching-immobilization of several type I receptors in the absence or presence of ligands with fluorescence recovery after photobleaching (FRAP) measurements on the lateral diffusion of an activin type II receptor, ACVR2A, to demonstrate the principle of competition between type I receptors for ACVR2. Our results show that ACVR2A can form stable heteromeric complexes with ALK4 (an activin type I receptor), as well as with several BMP type I receptors (ALK2/3/6). Of note, ALK4 and the BMP type I receptors competed for binding ACVR2A. To assess the implications of this competition for signaling output, we first validated that in our cell model system (U2OS cells), ACVR2/ALK4 transduce ActA signaling to Smad2/3, while BMP9 signaling to Smad1/5/8 employ ACVR2/ALK2 or ACVR2/ALK3. By combining ligand stimulation with overexpression of a competing type I receptor, we showed that differential complex formation of distinct type I receptors with a common type II receptor balances the signaling to the two Smad branches.
Conclusions: Different type I receptors that signal to distinct Smad pathways (Smad2/3 vs. Smad1/5/8) compete for binding to common activin type II receptors. This provides a novel mechanism to balance signaling between Smad2/3 and Smad1/5/8.
Keywords: Activin; BMP; FRAP; Receptor competition; Receptor interactions; Signaling.
© 2022. The Author(s).