Phosphorylation of the Dictyostelium myosin II heavy chain (MHC) has a key role in regulating myosin localization in vivo and drives filament disassembly in vitro. Previous molecular analysis of the Dictyostelium myosin II heavy chain kinase (MHCK A) gene has demonstrated that the catalytic domain of this enzyme is extremely novel, showing no significant similarity to the known classes of protein kinases (Futey, L. M., Q. G. Medley, G. P. Côté, and T. T. Egelhoff. 1995. J. Biol. Chem. 270:523-529). To address the physiological roles of this enzyme, we have analyzed the cellular consequences of MHCK A gene disruption (mhck A- cells) and MHCK A overexpression (MHCK A++ cells). The mhck A- cells are viable and competent for tested myosin-based contractile events, but display partial defects in myosin localization. Both growth phase and developed mhck A- cells show substantially reduced MHC kinase activity in crude lysates, as well as significant overassembly of myosin into the Triton-resistant cytoskeletal fractions. MHCK A++ cells display elevated levels of MHC kinase activity in crude extracts, and show reduced assembly of myosin into Triton-resistant cytoskeletal fractions. MHCK A++ cells show reduced growth rates in suspension, becoming large and multinucleated, and arrest at the mound stage during development. These results demonstrate that MHCK A functions in vivo as a protein kinase with physiological roles in regulating myosin II localization and assembly in Dictyostelium cells during both growth and developmental stages.

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