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Natural killer (NK) cells kill tumor cells and virally infected cells, and an effective NK cell response requires processes, such as motility, recognition, and directional secretion, that rely on cytoskeletal rearrangement. The Rho guanosine triphosphatase (GTPase) Cdc42 coordinates cytoskeletal reorganization downstream of many receptors. The Rho-related GTPase from plants 1 (ROP1) exhibits oscillatory activation behavior at the apical plasma membrane of growing pollen tubes; however, a similar oscillation in Rho GTPase activity has so far not been demonstrated in mammalian cells. We hypothesized that oscillations in Cdc42 activity might occur within NK cells as they interact with target cells. Through fluorescence lifetime imaging of a Cdc42 biosensor, we observed that in live NK cells forming immunological synapses with target cells, Cdc42 activity oscillated after exhibiting an initial increase. We used protein-protein interaction networks and structural databases to identify candidate proteins that controlled Cdc42 activity, leading to the design of a targeted short interfering RNA screen. The guanine nucleotide exchange factors RhoGEF6 and RhoGEF7 were necessary for Cdc42 activation within the NK cell immunological synapse. In addition, the kinase Akt and the p85α subunit of phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) were required for Cdc42 activation, the periodicity of the oscillation in Cdc42 activity, and the subsequent polarization of cytotoxic vesicles toward target cells. Given that PI3Ks are targets of tumor therapies, our findings suggest the need to monitor innate immune function during the course of targeted therapy against these enzymes.

Original publication




Journal article


Sci Signal

Publication Date





Biological Clocks, Cell Line, Transformed, Cell- and Tissue-Based Therapy, Class Ia Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinase, Cytoskeleton, Enzyme Activation, Guanine Nucleotide Exchange Factors, Humans, Immunity, Cellular, Immunity, Innate, Immunological Synapses, Killer Cells, Natural, Neoplasms, Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-akt, RNA, Small Interfering, Rho Guanine Nucleotide Exchange Factors, cdc42 GTP-Binding Protein