Doublecortin (DCX) is a 40 kDa microtubule-associated protein required for normal neural migration and cortical layering during development. Mutations in the human DCX gene cause a disruption of cortical neuronal migration. Defects in cdk5 (cyclin-dependent kinase 5) also cause defects in neural migration and cortical layering. DCX is a substrate for cdk5 in vitro and in vivo and the major site of in vitro phosphorylation is Ser-297. We used a highly developed MS strategy to identify the cdk5 phosphorylation sites and determine the major and minor sites. Several phosphopeptides were identified from a tryptic digest of 32P-labelled, cdk5-phosphorylated DCX using a combination of off-line HPLC and matrix-assisted laser-desorption ionization-MS with alkaline phosphatase treatment. Tandem MS/MS enabled the identification of seven phosphorylation sites for cdk5. Monitoring of 32P label indicated that there was one major site, Ser-28, at the N-terminus, and a major site, Ser-339, in the serine/proline-rich domain at the C-terminus. Five other sites, Ser-287, Thr-289, Ser-297, Thr-326 and Ser-332, were also found in the tail. Site-directed mutagenesis largely supported these findings. Single mutation of Ser-28 reduced but did not abolish phosphorylation. Double, rather than single, mutation for Ser-332 and Ser-339 was required to reduce overall phosphorylation, suggesting an interaction between these sites. Truncations of the tail produced a significant reduction in cdk5 phosphorylation of DCX. These results do not support Ser-297 as the major cdk5 phosphorylation site in DCX, but indicate that DCX is subject to complex multisite phosphorylation. This illustrates the importance of a well-developed MS strategy to identify phosphorylation sites.

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