BACKGROUND: Signal transduction pathways with shared components must be insulated from each other to avoid the inappropriate activation of multiple pathways by a single stimulus. Scaffold proteins are thought to contribute to this specificity by binding select substrates. RESULTS: We have studied the ability of scaffold proteins to influence signaling by the yeast kinase Ste11, a MAPKKK molecule that participates in three distinct MAP kinase pathways: mating, filamentation, and HOG. We used protein fusions to force Ste11 to associate preferentially with a subset of its possible binding partners in vivo, including Ste5, Ste7, and Pbs2. Signaling became confined to a particular pathway when Ste11 was covalently attached to these scaffolds or substrates. This pathway bias was conferred upon both stimulus-activated and constitutively active forms of Ste11. We also used membrane-targeted derivatives of the mating pathway scaffold, Ste5, to show that stimulus-independent signaling initiated by this scaffold remained pathway specific. Finally, we demonstrate that loss of pathway insulation has a negative physiological consequence, as nonspecific activation of both the HOG and mating pathways interfered with proper execution of the mating pathway. CONCLUSIONS: The signaling properties of these kinase fusions support a model in which scaffold proteins dictate substrate choice and promote pathway specificity by presenting preferred substrates in high local concentration. Furthermore, insulation is inherent to scaffold-mediated signaling and does not require that signaling be initiated by pathway-specific stimuli or activator proteins. Our results give insight into the mechanisms and physiological importance of pathway insulation and provide a foundation for the design of customized signaling proteins.
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