The catalytic (C) subunit of PKA was the first protein kinase structure to be solved, and it continues to serve as the prototype for the protein kinase superfamily. In contrast, by comparing many active and inactive kinases, we developed a novel ‘spine’ concept where every active kinase is composed of two hydrophobic spines anchored to a hydrophobic F-helix. The R-spine (regulatory spine) is dynamically assembled, typically by activation loop phosphorylation, whereas the C-spine (catalytic spine) is completed by the adenine ring of ATP. In the present paper, we show how the spine concept can be applied to B-Raf, specifically to engineer a kinase-dead pseudokinase. To achieve this, we mutated one of the C-spine residues in the N-lobe (N-terminal lobe), Ala481, to phenylalanine. This mutant cannot bind ATP and is thus kinase-dead, presumably because the phenylalanine ring fills the adenine-binding pocket. The C-spine is thus fused. However, the A481F mutant is still capable of binding wild-type B-Raf and wild-type C-Raf, and dimerization with a wild-type Raf leads to downstream activation of MEK [MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase)/ERK (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase) kinase] and ERK. The mutant requires dimerization, but is independent of Ras and does not require enzymatic activity. By distinguishing between catalytic and scaffold functions of B-Raf, we define kinases as being bifunctional and show that, at least in some cases, the scaffold function is sufficient for downstream signalling. Since this alanine residue is one of the most highly conserved residues in the kinome, we suggest that this may be a general strategy for engineering kinase-dead pseudokinases and exploring biological functions that are independent of catalysis.

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