The aggregation states of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) on single A431 human epidermoid carcinoma cells were assessed with two new techniques for determining fluorescence resonance energy transfer: donor photobleaching fluorescence resonance energy transfer (pbFRET) microscopy and fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM). Fluorescein-(donor) and rhodamine-(acceptor) labeled EGF were bound to the cells and the extent of oligomerization was monitored by the spatially resolved FRET efficiency as a function of the donor/acceptor ratio and treatment conditions. An average FRET efficiency of 5% was determined after a low temperature (4 degrees C) incubation with the fluorescent EGF analogs for 40 min. A subsequent elevation of the temperature for 5 min caused a substantial increase of the average FRET efficiency to 14% at 20 degrees C and 31% at 37 degrees C. In the context of a two-state (monomer/dimer) model for the EGFR, these FRET efficiencies were consistent with minimal average receptor dimerizations of 13, 36, and 69% at 4, 20, and 37 degrees C, respectively. A431 cells were pretreated with the monoclonal antibody mAb 2E9 that specifically blocks EGF binding to the predominant population of low affinity EGFR (15). The average FRET efficiency increased dramatically to 28% at 4 degrees C, indicative of a minimal receptor dimerization of 65% for the subpopulation of high affinity receptors. These results are in accordance with prior studies indicating that binding of EGF leads to a fast and temperature-dependent microclustering of EGFR, but suggest in addition that the high affinity functional subclass of receptors on quiescent A431 cells are present in a predimerized or oligomerized state. We propose that the transmission of the external ligand-binding signal to the cytoplasmic domain is effected by a concerted relative rotational rearrangement of the monomeric units comprising the dimeric receptor, thereby potentiating a mutual activation of the tyrosine kinase domains.

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