Conspectus Here we describe an experimental tool, termed quantitative imaging Förster resonance energy transfer (QI-FRET), that enables the quantitative characterization of membrane protein interactions. The QI-FRET methodology allows us to acquire binding curves and calculate association constants for complex membrane proteins in the native plasma membrane environment. The method utilizes FRET detection, and thus requires that the proteins of interest are labeled with florescent proteins, either FRET donors or FRET acceptors. Since plasma membranes of cells have complex topologies precluding the acquisition of two-dimensional binding curves, the FRET measurements are performed in plasma membrane derived vesicles that bud off cells as a result of chemical or osmotic stress. The results overviewed here are acquired in vesicles produced with an osmotic vesiculation buffer developed in our laboratory, which does not utilize harsh chemicals. The concentrations of the donor-labeled and the acceptor-labeled proteins are determined, along with the FRET efficiencies, in each vesicle. The experiments utilize transient transfection, such that a wide variety of concentrations is sampled. Then, data from hundreds of vesicles are combined to yield dimerization curves. Here we discuss recent findings about the dimerization of receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs), membrane proteins that control cell growth and differentiation via lateral dimerization in the plasma membrane. We focus on the dimerization of fibroblast growth factor receptor 3 (FGFR3), a RTK that plays a critically important role in skeletal development. We study the role of different FGFR3 domains in FGFR3 dimerization in the absence of ligand, and we show that FGFR3 extracellular domains inhibit unliganded dimerization, while contacts between the juxtamembrane domains, which connect the transmembrane domains to the kinase domains, stabilize the unliganded FGFR3 dimers. Since FGFR3 has been documented to harbor many pathogenic single amino acid mutations that cause skeletal and cranial dysplasias, as well as cancer, we also study the effects of these mutations on dimerization. First, we show that the A391E mutation, linked to Crouzon syndrome with acanthosis nigricans and to bladder cancer, significantly enhances FGFR3 dimerization in the absence of ligand and thus induces aberrant receptor interactions. Second, we present results about the effect of three cysteine mutations that cause thanatophoric dysplasia, a lethal phenotype. Such cysteine mutations have been hypothesized previously to cause constitutive dimerization, but we find instead that they have a surprisingly modest effect on dimerization. Most of the studied pathogenic mutations also altered FGFR3 dimer structure, suggesting that both increases in dimerization propensities and changes in dimer structure contribute to the pathological phenotypes. The results acquired with the QI-FRET method further our understanding of the interactions between FGFR3 molecules and RTK molecules in general. Since RTK dimerization regulates RTK signaling, our findings advance our knowledge of RTK activity in health and disease. The utility of the QI-FRET method is not restricted to RTKs, and we thus hope that in the future the QI-FRET method will be applied to other classes of membrane proteins, such as channels and G protein-coupled receptors.
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