It is a well-established fact that tetraspanin proteins, a large family of integral membrane proteins involved in cell motility, fusion and signalling, associate extensively with one another and with other transmembrane and membrane-proximal proteins. In this study, we present results strongly suggesting that tetraspanin homodimers are fundamental units within larger tetraspanin complexes. Evidence for constitutive CD9 homodimers was obtained using several cell lines, utilizing the following four methods: (1) spontaneous cross-linking via intermolecular disulphide bonds, (2) use of a cysteine-reactive covalent cross-linking agent, (3) use of an amino-reactive covalent cross-linking agent, and (4) covalent cross-linking via direct intermolecular disulphide bridging between unpalmitoylated membrane-proximal cysteine residues. In the last case, incubation of cells with the palmitoylation inhibitor 2-bromopalmitate exposed membrane-proximal cysteine residues, thus effectively promoting ‘zero-length’ cross-linking to stabilize homodimers. Similar to CD9, other tetraspanins (CD81 and CD151) also showed a tendency to homodimerize. Tetraspanin homodimers were assembled from newly synthesized proteins in the Golgi, as evidenced by cycloheximide and Brefeldin A inhibition studies. Importantly, tetraspanin homodimers appeared on the cell surface and participated in typical ‘tetraspanin web’ interactions with other proteins. Whereas homodimers were the predominant cross-linked species, we also observed some higher-order complexes (trimers, tetramers or higher) and a much lower level of cross-linking between different tetraspanins (CD81–CD9, CD9–CD151, CD81–CD151). In conclusion, our results strongly suggest that tetraspanin homodimers, formed in the Golgi and present at the cell surface, serve as building blocks for the assembly of larger, multicomponent tetraspanin protein complexes.
Abbreviations used: BMB, 1,4-bismaleimidobutane; BMH, 1,6-bis(maleimido)hexane; 2-BP, 2-bromopalmitate; DMEM, Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium; DSP, dithio-bis-succinimidylproprionate; DTME, dithio-bismaleimidoethane; FBS, foetal bovine serum; GFP, green fluorescent protein; NEM, N-ethylmaleimide; RD, rhabdomyosarcoma; TEM, tetraspanin-enriched microdomain; UPIa, uroplakin Ia.