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Sonic hedgehog (Shh) is a morphogen active during vertebrate development and tissue homeostasis in adulthood. Dysregulation of the Shh signalling pathway is known to incite carcinogenesis. Due to the highly lipophilic nature of this protein imparted by two post-translational modifications, Shh's method of transit through the aqueous extracellular milieu has been a long-standing conundrum, prompting the proposition of numerous hypotheses to explain the manner of its displacement from the surface of the producing cell. Detection of high molecular-weight complexes of Shh in the intercellular environment has indicated that the protein achieves this by accumulating into multimeric structures prior to release from producing cells. The mechanism of assembly of the multimers, however, has hitherto remained mysterious and contentious. Here, with the aid of high-resolution optical imaging and post-translational modification mutants of Shh, we show that the C-terminal cholesterol and the N-terminal palmitate adducts contribute to the assembly of large multimers and regulate their shape. Moreover, we show that small Shh multimers are produced in the absence of any lipid modifications. Based on an assessment of the distribution of various dimensional characteristics of individual Shh clusters, in parallel with deductions about the kinetics of release of the protein from the producing cells, we conclude that multimerization is driven by self-assembly underpinned by the law of mass action. We speculate that the lipid modifications augment the size of the multimolecular complexes through prolonging their association with the exoplasmic membrane.

Original publication




Journal article


Mol Membr Biol

Publication Date





65 - 74


Cholesteryl, Shh, homomultimerization, palmitoyl, self-assembly, Animals, Hedgehog Proteins, Humans, Protein Multimerization, Protein Processing, Post-Translational, Signal Transduction