In the field of molecular biology, a two-component regulatory system serves as a basic stimulus-response coupling mechanism to allow organisms to sense and respond to changes in many different environmental conditions. Two-component systems typically consist of a membrane-bound histidine kinase that senses a specific environmental stimulus and a corresponding response regulator that mediates the cellular response, mostly through differential expression of target genes. Although two-component signaling systems are found in all domains of life, they are most common by far in bacteria, particularly in Gram-negative and cyanobacteria; both histidine kinases and response regulators are among the largest gene families in bacteria. They are much less common in archaea and eukaryotes; although they do appear in yeasts, filamentous fungi, and slime molds, and are common in plants, two-component systems have been described as "conspicuously absent" from animals.
Many HKs are bifunctional and possess phosphatase activity against their cognate response regulators, so that their signaling output reflects a balance between their kinase and phosphatase activities. Many response regulators also auto-dephosphorylate, and the relatively labile phosphoaspartate can also be hydrolyzed non-enzymatically. The overall level of phosphorylation of the response regulator ultimately controls its activity.
Some histidine kinases are hybrids that contain an internal receiver domain. In these cases, a hybrid HK autophosphorylates and then transfers the phosphoryl group to its own internal receiver domain, rather than to a separate RR protein. The phosphoryl group is then shuttled to histidine phosphotransferase (HPT) and subsequently to a terminal RR, which can evoke the desired response. This system is called a phosphorelay. Almost 25% of bacterial HKs are of the hybrid type, as are the large majority of eukaryotic HKs.
Signal transducing histidine kinases are the key elements in two-component signal transduction systems. Examples of histidine kinases are EnvZ, which plays a central role in osmoregulation, and CheA, which plays a central role in the chemotaxis system. Histidine kinases usually have an N-terminalligand-binding domain and a C-terminal kinase domain, but other domains may also be present. The kinase domain is responsible for the autophosphorylation of the histidine with ATP, the phosphotransfer from the kinase to an aspartate of the response regulator, and (with bifunctional enzymes) the phosphotransfer from aspartyl phosphate to water. The kinase core has a unique fold, distinct from that of the Ser/Thr/Tyr kinase superfamily.
HKs can be roughly divided into two classes: orthodox and hybrid kinases. Most orthodox HKs, typified by the E. coli EnvZ protein, function as periplasmic membrane receptors and have a signal peptide and transmembrane segment(s) that separate the protein into a periplasmic N-terminal sensing domain and a highly conserved cytoplasmic C-terminal kinase core. Members of this family, however, have an integral membrane sensor domain. Not all orthodox kinases are membrane bound, e.g., the nitrogen regulatory kinase NtrB (GlnL) is a soluble cytoplasmic HK. Hybrid kinases contain multiple phosphodonor and phosphoacceptor sites and use multi-step phospho-relay schemes instead of promoting a single phosphoryl transfer. In addition to the sensor domain and kinase core, they contain a CheY-like receiver domain and a His-containing phosphotransfer (HPt) domain.
The number of two-component systems present in a bacterial genome is highly correlated with genome size as well as ecological niche; bacteria that occupy niches with frequent environmental fluctuations possess more histidine kinases and response regulators. New two-component systems may arise by gene duplication or by lateral gene transfer, and the relative rates of each process vary dramatically across bacterial species. In most cases, response regulator genes are located in the same operon as their cognate histidine kinase; lateral gene transfers are more likely to preserve operon structure than gene duplications.
It is unclear why canonical two-component systems are rare in eukaryotes, with many similar functions having been taken over by signaling systems based on serine, threonine, or tyrosine kinases; it has been speculated that the chemical instability of phosphoaspartate is responsible, and that increased stability is needed to transduce signals in the more complex eukaryotic cell. Notably, cross-talk between signaling mechanisms is very common in eukaryotic signaling systems but rare in bacterial two-component systems.
Because of their sequence similarity and operon structure, many two-component systems – particularly histidine kinases – are relatively easy to identify through bioinformatics analysis. (By contrast, eukaryotic kinases are typically easily identified, but they are not easily paired with their substrates.) A database of prokaryotic two-component systems called P2CS has been compiled to document and classify known examples, and in some cases to make predictions about the cognates of "orphan" histidine kinase or response regulator proteins that are genetically unlinked to a partner.
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