Background: Bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs) transmit signals via the intracellular protein Smad1, which is phosphorylated by ligand bound receptors, translocates to the nucleus, and functions to activate BMP target genes. Recently, a subclass of Smad proteins has been shown to inhibit, rather than transduce, BMP signalling, either by binding to the intracellular domain of BMP receptors, thereby preventing phosphorylation-mediated activation of Smad1, or by binding directly to Smad1, thereby inhibiting its ability to activate gene transcription.
Results: We have identified a Xenopus Smad (Smad6) that is 52% identical to mammalian Smad6, an inhibitory Smad. The spatial pattern of expression of Smad6 changes dynamically during embryogenesis and is similar to that of BMP-4 at the tailbud stage. Overexpression of Smad6 in Xenopus embryos phenocopies the effect of blocking BMP-4 signalling, leading to dorsalization of mesoderm and neuralization of ectoderm. Xenopus Smad6 completely blocks the activity of exogenous BMP-4, and, unlike human Smad6, partially blocks the activity of activin, in a mesoderm induction assay. We also find that Smad6 protein accumulates at the membrane in some cells but is partially or completely restricted to nuclei of most overexpressing cells.
Conclusions: We have identified an inhibitory Xenopus Smad, Smad6, that functions as an intracellular antagonist of activin and BMP-4 signalling. Our finding that Smad6 protein is partially or completely restricted to nuclei of most overexpressing cells suggests that it may employ a novel or additional mechanism of action to antagonize TGF-beta family signalling other than that reported for other inhibitory Smads.