Mutations in fibroblast growth factor receptors are known as the genetic basis of skeletal growth disorders. The mechanism of pathogenesis, as determined by mutation-induced changes in receptor structure, interactions, and function, is elusive. Here we study three pathogenic Cys mutations, associated with either thanatophoric dysplasia or achondroplasia, in the TM domain of fibroblast growth factor receptors 3 (FGFR3). We characterize the dimerization propensities of the mutant TM domains in detergents and in lipid bilayers, in the presence and absence of reducing agents, and compare them to previous measurements of wild-type. We find that the Cys mutations increase the propensity for dimerization in detergent, with the Cys370 mutant exhibiting the highest propensity for disulfide bond formation, the Cys371 mutant having an intermediate propensity, and Cys375 the lowest. Thus, disulfide bonds readily form in detergents, with efficiency that correlates with the severity of the phenotype. In lipid bilayers, however, the Cys370 mutant, which dimerizes strongly in detergent, behaves as the wild-type, suggesting that Cys370-mediated disulfide bonds do not form between the isolated TM domains in bilayers. Thus, the nature of the hydrophobic environment plays an important role in defining the structure and flexibility of transmembrane dimers. These results and previous findings from cellular studies lead us to propose a conformational flexibility mechanism of receptor stabilization as a basis for disregulated FGFR3 signaling in thanatophoric dysplasia and achondroplasia.
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