Background: The number of cells within mammalian tissues is maintained by growth-stimulating and growth-inhibiting mechanisms, with inhibitory signals being superimposed over growth stimuli. This is reflected, in the culture of normal adherent cells, by the phenomenon of density-dependent inhibition of growth: cells cease proliferation after becoming a confluent monolayer. We have shown previously that a plasma membrane glycoprotein, contactinhibin, is a major effector of negative growth regulation. Although transformed cells express contactinhibin in a functionally active form, they are not growth-inhibited, suggesting that the defects that lead to their aberrant growth are located 'downstream' of contactinhibin.
Results: Here, we provide evidence that a 92 kD plasma membrane protein, which we call CiR, binds specifically to contactinhibin and acts as a receptor mediating the contact-dependent inhibition of growth of cultured human fibroblasts. When polyclonal antibodies against CiR were introduced into cells using liposomes, confluent cells were released from density-dependent growth control. By contrast, cross-linking CiR that is localized to the plasma membrane, using anti-CiR antibodies, led to growth inhibition, suggesting that CiR is a signalling molecule and implicating CiR oligomerization in signal generation. This conclusion is supported by the finding that binding of contactinhibin by CiR is strongly dependent on the local concentration of both molecules and has a sharp threshold. When CiR was isolated by immuno-precipitation under conditions favouring phosphorylation, it was hyperphosphorylated on serine and threonine residues and had reduced contactinhibin-binding capacity; the binding capacity of CiR was restored after treatment with potato acid phosphatase. Fibroblasts transformed with simian virus 40 had reduced CiR expression, higher CiR phosphorylation levels, and a strongly reduced capacity of CiR to bind to contactinhibin. Phosphatase treatment of the CiR isolated from transformed cells only partially restored its contactinhibin-binding capacity.
Conclusions: Homeostasis is the net result of a highly balanced network of growth-stimulating and growth-inhibitory signals. We have shown that density-dependent inhibition of growth in vitro is mediated by the interaction of contactinhibin with a 92 kD plasma membrane glycoprotein, CiR, the contactinhibin-binding capacity of which is regulated by phosphorylation.