Heparin, Heparan Sulphate and the TGF-β Cytokine Superfamily.
Gremlin is a member of the CAN (cerberus and DAN) family of secreted BMP (bone morphogenetic protein) antagonists and also an agonist of VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) receptor-2. It is critical in limb skeleton and kidney development and is re-expressed during tissue fibrosis. Gremlin binds strongly to heparin and heparan sulfate and, in the present study, we sought to investigate its heparin-binding site. In order to explore a putative non-contiguous binding site predicted by computational molecular modelling, we substituted a total of 11 key arginines and lysines located in three basic residue sequence clusters with homologous sequences from cerberus and DAN (differential screening selected gene abberative in neuroblastoma), CAN proteins which lack basic residues in these positions. A panel of six Myc-tagged gremlin mutants, MGR-1-MGR-6 (MGR, mutant gremlin), each containing different combinations of targeted substitutions, all showed markedly reduced affinity for heparin as demonstrated by their NaCl elution on heparin affinity chromatography, thus verifying our predictions. Both MGR-5 and MGR-6 retained BMP-4-binding activity comparable to that of wild-type gremlin. Low-molecular-mass heparin neither promoted nor inhibited BMP-4 binding. Finally, glutaraldehyde cross-linking demonstrated that gremlin forms non-covalent dimers, similar behaviour to that of DAN and also PRDC (protein related to cerberus and DAN), another CAN protein. The resulting dimer would possess two heparin-binding sites, each running along an exposed surface on the second β-strand finger loop of one of the monomers.