FGF-2 activates multiple signaling pathways by a cell surface signaling complex assembled with FGF, its receptor tyrosine kinase, and heparan sulfate proteoglycan. Heparan sulfate binds to a site on the receptor and at least one site on the growth factor. Several models propose an important role for heparan sulfate not only in facilitating FGF-2 binding to its receptor tyrosine kinase but also in promoting signaling via formation of receptor dimers. Such dimers are capable of transphosphorylation of the cytoplasmic domain of the receptor, leading to the generation of phosphotyrosines that are important initiators of intracellular signaling pathways. To explore the participation of heparan sulfates in the formation of a signaling complex that activates these pathways, the binding and activity of FGF-2 on Swiss 3T3 fibroblasts and F32 lymphoid cells is examined with either native or modified forms of heparin. As shown previously, fibroblasts treated with chlorate, which inhibits the sulfation of heparan sulfate and its subsequent binding to FGF-2, display a dramatically reduced response to picomolar concentrations of FGF-2, but binding to receptors and a mitogenic response is restored by heparin. However, the restoration of high-affinity binding is seen only at an optimal concentration of heparin. Excess heparin competes for binding sites within the signaling complex such that high-affinity binding and receptor transphosphorylation are reduced. Despite this, mitogenic signaling is not diminished. A similar result is observed using heparin fragments that promote mitogenesis but not high-affinity binding. These results suggest that the high-affinity signaling complex that is necessary for stable receptor transphosphorylation differs from the signaling complex sufficient for triggering mitogenesis. We speculate that heparan sulfate in vivo participates in two hierarchies of receptor activation. In one, heparan sulfate participates in FGF-2 binding to its receptor tyrosine kinase and activation of mitogenic signaling, perhaps through monomeric receptors or the transient formation of receptor dimers. In the second hierarchy, heparan sulfate participates in the stabilization of a signaling complex that is likely to be comprised of receptor multimers that carry out effective receptor transphosphorylation. A further description of this mechanism may lead to an understanding of how heparan sulfate or its homologues can regulate specific signaling pathways within the cell.
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