Phosphorylation of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) is a required step in signal deactivation. Rhodopsin, a prototypical GPCR, exhibits high gain phosphorylation in vitro whereby a hundred-fold molar excess of phosphates are incorporated into the rhodopsin pool per molecule of activated rhodopsin. The extent by which high gain phosphorylation occurs in the intact mammalian photoreceptor cell, and the molecular mechanism underlying this reaction in vivo, is not known. Trans-phosphorylation is a mechanism proposed for high gain phosphorylation, whereby rhodopsin kinase, upon phosphorylating the activated receptor, continues to phosphorylate nearby nonactivated rhodopsin. We used two different transgenic mouse models to test whether trans-phosphorylation occurs in the intact photoreceptor cell. The first transgenic model expressed a murine cone pigment, S-opsin, together with the endogenous rhodopsin in the rod cell. We showed that selective stimulation of rhodopsin also led to phosphorylation of S-opsin. The second mouse model expressed the constitutively active human opsin mutant K296E. K296E, in the arrestin-/- background, also led to phosphorylation of endogenous mouse rhodopsin in the dark-adapted retina. Both mouse models provide strong support of trans-phosphorylation as an underlying mechanism of high gain phosphorylation, and provide evidence that a substantial fraction of nonactivated visual pigments becomes phosphorylated through this mechanism. Because activated, phosphorylated receptors exhibit decreased catalytic activity, our results suggest that dephosphorylation would be an important step in the full recovery of visual sensitivity during dark adaptation. These results may also have implications for other GPCR signaling pathways.
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