The Construction and Deconstruction of Signaling Systems that Regulate Mitotic Spindle Positioning
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Signaling systems regulate the flow of cellular information by organizing proteins in space and time to coordinate a variety of cellular activities that are critical for the proper development, function, and maintenance of cells. Signaling molecules can exhibit several levels of complexity through the utilization of modular protein interactions, which can generate simple linear behaviors or complex behaviors such as ultrasensitivity. Protein modularity also serves as the basis for the vast protein networks that form the regulatory networks that govern several biological activities. My work focuses on the importance of protein modularity in complex biological systems, in particular the regulatory pathways of spindle positioning. The first part of my work involves the construction of a synthetic regulatory network using modular protein interactions in an effort to understand the complex behavior of the natural spindle orientation regulator Pins. Utilizing well-characterized protein domains and their binding partners, I built an autoinhibited protein switch that can be activated by a small protein domain. We found that the input-output relationship of the synthetic protein switch could be tuned by the simple addition of "decoy" domains, domains that bind and sequester input signal, thereby impeding the onset of the output response to generate an input threshold. By varying the number and affinities of the decoy domains, we found that we could transform a simple linear response into a complex, ultrasensitive one. Thus, modular protein interactions can serve as a source of complex behaviors. The second part of my work focuses on elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying spindle positioning in the Drosophila neuroblast. I found that Pins orients the mitotic spindle by coordinating two opposite-polarity microtubule motors Dynein and Kinesin-73 through its multiple domains. Kinesin-73 also relies on its modular domain architecture to perform its duties in Pins-mediated spindle positioning, where its N-terminal half functions in coordinating cortical-microtubule capture while its C-terminal half functions as a region necessary for the activation of Dynein. Thus, modular protein design allows for the organization of spindle orientation regulators in space to achieve the complex biological activity that is spindle positioning. This dissertation includes previously published and unpublished coauthored material.