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Visualization and Quantification of TGFβ/BMP/SMAD Signaling under Different Fluid Shear Stress Conditions using Proximity-Ligation-Assay

Published: September 14th, 2021



1Institute for Chemistry and Biochemistry, Freie Universität Berlin, 2International Max-Planck Research School for Biology and Computation

Here, we establish a protocol to simultaneously visualize and analyze multiple SMAD complexes using proximity ligation assay (PLA) in endothelial cells exposed to pathological and physiological fluid shear stress conditions.

Transforming Growth Factor β (TGFβ)/Bone Morphogenetic Protein (BMP) signaling is tightly regulated and balanced during the development and homeostasis of the vasculature system Therefore, deregulation in this signaling pathway results in severe vascular pathologies, such as pulmonary artery hypertension, hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, and atherosclerosis. Endothelial cells (ECs), as the innermost layer of blood vessels, are constantly exposed to fluid shear stress (SS). Abnormal patterns of fluid SS have been shown to enhance TGFβ/BMP signaling, which, together with other stimuli, induce atherogenesis. In relation to this, atheroprone, low laminar SS was found to enhance TGFβ/BMP signaling while atheroprotective, high laminar SS, diminishes this signaling. To efficiently analyze the activation of these pathways, we designed a workflow to investigate the formation of transcription factor complexes under low laminar SS and high laminar SS conditions using a commercially available pneumatic pump system and proximity ligation assay (PLA).

Active TGFβ/BMP-signaling requires the formation of trimeric SMAD complexes consisting of two regulatory SMADs (R-SMAD); SMAD2/3 and SMAD1/5/8 for TGFβ and BMP signaling, respectively) with a common mediator SMAD (co-SMAD; SMAD4). Using PLA targeting different subunits of the trimeric SMAD-complex, i.e., either R-SMAD/co-SMAD or R-SMAD/R-SMAD, the formation of active SMAD transcription factor complexes can be measured quantitatively and spatially using fluorescence microscopy.

The usage of flow slides with 6 small parallel channels, that can be connected in series, allows for the investigation of the transcription factor complex formation and inclusion of necessary controls.

The workflow explained here can be easily adapted for studies targeting the proximity of SMADs to other transcription factors or to transcription factor complexes other than SMADs, in different fluid SS conditions. The workflow presented here shows a quick and effective way to study the fluid SS induced TGFβ/BMP signaling in ECs, both quantitatively and spatially.

Proteins of the transforming growth factors beta (TGFβ) superfamily are pleiotropic cytokines with a variety of members, including TGFβs, bone morphogenetic proteins (BMPs), and Activins1,2. Ligand binding induces the formation of receptor oligomers leading to the phosphorylation and, thereby, activation of cytosolic regulatory SMAD (R-SMAD). Depending on the sub-family of ligands, different R-SMADs are activated1,2. While TGFβs and Activins mainly induce phosphorylation of SMAD2/3, BMPs induce SMAD1/5/8 phosphorylation. However, there a....

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1. Cell culture and fluid shear stress exposure

NOTE: Human umbilical vein ECs (HUVECs) were used as an example to study SS induced interaction of SMADs. The protocol described below can be applied to every SS responsive cell type.

  1. Coat 6-channel slide with 0.1% porcine skin gelatin in PBS for 30 min at 37 °C.
  2. Seed HUVECs in pre-coated 6-channel slides at a density of 2.5 x 106 cells per mL in 30 µL of M199 full medium.
    NOTE: For further inform.......

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We have previously used PLA to detect interactions of different SMAD proteins3 and analyzed shear stress induced changes in SMAD phosphorylation28.

Here, both methods were combined with the protocol described above. HUVECs were subjected to shear stress of 1 dyn/cm2 and 30 dyn/cm2 and analyzed for interactions of SMAD transcription factors. We show that, when compared to the high shear stress (30 dyn/cm2), the low.......

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The PLA based protocol described here offers an efficient way to determine close proximity of two proteins (e.g., their direct interaction) in ECs exposed to shear stress with quantitative and spatial resolution. By using flow slides with multiple parallel channels, several different protein interactions can be examined at the same time in cells under identical mechanical conditions. In contrast, custom-build flow chamber systems often make use of a single channel that is built around a glass coverslip, which would allow.......

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We thank Dr. Maria Reichenbach and Dr. Christian Hiepen for their support on the flow-set up system and Eleanor Fox and Yunyun Xiao for critically reading the manuscript. P-L.M. was funded by the international Max Planck Research School IMPRS-Biology and Computation (IMPRS-BAC). PK received funding by the DFG-SFB1444. Figure 1 was created using BioRender.


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Name Company Catalog Number Comments
µ-Slide VI 0.4 ibidi 80606 6-channel slide
Ammonium Chloride Carl Roth K298.1 Quenching
Bovine Serum Albumin Carl Roth 8076.4 Blocking
DAPI Sigma Aldrich/ Merck D9542 Stain DNA/Nuclei
DPBS PAN Biotech P04-53500 PBS
Duolink In Situ Detection Reagents Green Sigma Aldrich/ Merck DUO92014 PLA kit containing Ligase, ligation buffer, polymerase and amplification buffer (with green labeled oligonucleotides)
Duolink In Situ PLA Probe Anti-Mouse MINUS Sigma Aldrich/ Merck DUO92004 MINUS probe
Duolink In Situ PLA Probe Anti-Rabbit PLUS Sigma Aldrich/ Merck DUO92002 PLUS probe
Duolink In Situ Wash Buffers, Fluorescence Sigma Aldrich/ Merck DUO82049 PLA wash buffers A and B
Endothelial Cell Growth Supplement Corning supplement for medium (ECGS)
Fetal calf Serum supplement for medium
FIJI Image Analysis software
Formaldehyde solution 4% buffered KLINIPATH/VWR VWRK4186.BO1 PFA
Full medium M199 basal medium +20 % FCS +1 % P/S + 2 nM L-Glu +  25 µg/mL Hep +   50 µg/mL ECGS
Gelatin from porcine skin, Type A Sigma Aldrich G2500 Use 0.1% in PBS for coating of flow channels
GraphPad Prism v.7 GarphPad Statistical Program used for the Plots and statistical calculations
Heparin sodium salt from porcine intestinal mucosa Sigma Aldrich H4784-250MG supplement for medium (Hep)
ibidi Mounting Medium ibidi 50001 Liquid mounting medium
ibidi Pump System ibidi 10902 pneumatic pump
Leica TCS SP8 Leica confocal microscope
L-Glutamin 200mM PAN Biotech P04-80100 supplement for medium (L-Glu)
Medium 199 Sigma Aldrich M2154 Base medium
mouse anti- SMAD1 Antibody Abcam ab53745 Suited for PLA
mouse anti- SMAD2/3 Antibody BD Bioscience 610843 Not suited for PLA in combination with CST 9515
mousee anti- SMAD4 Antibody Sanata Cruz Biotechnology sc-7966 Suited for PLA
Penicillin 10.000U/ml /Streptomycin 10mg/ml PAN Biotech P06-07100 supplement for medium (P/S)
Perfusion Set WHITE ibidi 10963 Tubings used for 1 dyn/cm2
Perfusion Set YELLOW and GREEN ibidi 10964 Tubings used for 30 dyn/cm2
rabbit anti- phospho SMAD1/5 Antibody Cell Signaling Technologies 9516 Suited for PLA
rabbit anti- SMAD2/3 XP Antibody Cell Signaling Technologies 8685 Suited for PLA
rabbit anti- SMAD4 Antibody Cell Signaling Technologies 9515 Not suited for PLA in combination with BD 610843
Serial Connector for µ-Slides ibidi 10830 serial connection tubes
Triton X-100 Carl Roth 6683.1 Permeabilization

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