Research Article

Mechanism of Activation of Protein Kinase JAK2 by the Growth Hormone Receptor

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Science  16 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6185, 1249783
DOI: 10.1126/science.1249783

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Structured Abstract


Class I cytokines regulate key processes such as growth, lactation, hematopoiesis, and immune function and contribute to oncogenesis. Although the extracellular domain structures of their receptors are well characterized, little is known about how the receptors activate their associated JAK (Janus kinase) protein kinases. We provide a mechanistic description for this process, focusing on the growth hormone (GH) receptor and its associated JAK2.

Embedded Image

Receptor-JAK2 activation process. (Top) Cartoons of the GH receptor basal state (state 1, left) and the active state (state 2, right) with (Bottom) transmembrane helix alignments for these states derived by modeling. GHR, GH receptor.


We tested whether the receptor exists as a dimer in the inactive state by homo-FRET [fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) between the proteins labeled with the same fluorophore] and other means. Then, to define receptor movements resulting from activation, we attached FRET reporters to the receptor below the cell membrane and correlated their movement with receptor activation, measured as increased cell proliferation. We controlled the position of the transmembrane helices with leucine zippers and mutagenesis, and we again monitored FRET and receptor activation. We used cysteine cross-linking data to define the faces of the transmembrane helices in contact in the basal state and verified this with molecular dynamics, which allowed us to model the activation process. We also used FRET reporters to monitor the movement of JAK2, and we matched this with molecular dynamics docking of the crystal structures of the kinase and its pseudokinase domains to derive a model for activation, which we then verified experimentally.


We found that the GH receptor exists predominantly as a dimer in vivo, held together by its transmembrane helices. These helices are parallel in the basal state, and binding of the hormone converts them into a left-hand crossover state that induces separation of helices at the lower transmembrane boundary (hence, Box1 separation). This movement is triggered by increased proximity of the juxtamembrane sequences, a consequence of locking together of the lower module of the extracellular domain on hormone binding. This movement is triggered by increased proximity of the juxtamembrane sequences , a Both this locking and the helix state transition require rotation of the receptors, but the key outcome is separation of the Box1 sequences. Because these sequences are bound to the JAK2 FERM (4.1, ezrin, radixin, moesin) domains, this separation results in removal of the pseudokinase inhibitory domain of one JAK2, which is blocking the kinase domain of the other JAK2, and vice versa. This brings the two kinase domains into productive apposition, triggering JAK2 activation. We verified this mechanism by kinase-pseudokinase domain swap, by changes in JAK2 FRET signal on activation, by showing association of pseudokinase-kinase domain pairs, and by docking of the crystal structures. An animation of our complete model of GH receptor activation is provided at


The proposed mechanism will be useful in understanding the many actions of GH, which include altered growth, metabolism, and bone turnover. We expect that it may extend to other members of this important receptor family. The mechanism provides a molecular basis for understanding the oncogenic JAK2 mutations responsible for polycythemia vera and certain other hematologic disorders and may thus be of value in the design of small-molecule inhibitors of clinical applicability.


Signaling from JAK (Janus kinase) protein kinases to STAT (signal transducers and activators of transcription) transcription factors is key to many aspects of biology and medicine, yet the mechanism by which cytokine receptors initiate signaling is enigmatic. We present a complete mechanistic model for activation of receptor-bound JAK2, based on an archetypal cytokine receptor, the growth hormone receptor. For this, we used fluorescence resonance energy transfer to monitor positioning of the JAK2 binding motif in the receptor dimer, substitution of the receptor extracellular domains with Jun zippers to control the position of its transmembrane (TM) helices, atomistic modeling of TM helix movements, and docking of the crystal structures of the JAK2 kinase and its inhibitory pseudokinase domain with an opposing kinase-pseudokinase domain pair. Activation of the receptor dimer induced a separation of its JAK2 binding motifs, driven by a ligand-induced transition from a parallel TM helix pair to a left-handed crossover arrangement. This separation leads to removal of the pseudokinase domain from the kinase domain of the partner JAK2 and pairing of the two kinase domains, facilitating trans-activation. This model may well generalize to other class I cytokine receptors.

The Hormone's Message

The receptor for growth hormone is a well-studied representative of a family of cytokine receptors through which binding of hormone molecules at the cell surface is converted into a biochemical signal within the cell. Brooks et al. (10.1126/science.1249783; see the Perspective by Wells and Kossiakoff) used a combination of crystal structures, biophysical measurements, cell biology experiments with modified receptors, and molecular dynamics and modeling to decipher how the receptor actually transmits the information that a hormone molecule is bound. The results suggest that the receptors exist in inactive dimeric complexes in which two associated JAK2 protein kinase molecules interact in an inhibitory manner. Binding of growth hormone causes a structural change in the receptor that results in movement of the receptor intracellular domains apart from one another. This relieves the inhibition of the JAK2 molecules and allows them to activate one another, thus initiating the cellular response to the hormone.

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