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We identified fresh human leukocytes as an abundant source of the candidate epithelial tumor suppressor gene, Ecrg4, an epigenetically regulated gene, which unlike other tumor suppressor genes, encodes an orphan-secreted, ligand-like protein. In human cell lines, Ecrg4 gene expression was low, Ecrg4 protein undetectable, and Ecrg4 promoter hypermethylation high (45-90%) and reversible by the methylation inhibitor 5-AzaC. In contrast, Ecrg4 gene expression in fresh, normal human PBMCs and PMNs was 600-800 times higher than in cultured cell lines, methylation of the Ecrg4 promoter was low (<3%), and protein levels were readily detectable in lysates and on the cell surface. Flow cytometry, immunofluorescent staining, and cell surface biotinylation established that full-length, 14-kDa Ecrg4 was localized on PMN and monocyte cell surfaces, establishing that Ecrg4 is a membrane-anchored protein. LPS treatment induced processing and release of Ecrg4, as detected by flow and immunoblotting, whereas an effect of fMLF treatment on Ecrg4 on the PMN cell surface was detected on the polarized R2 subpopulation of cells. This loss of cell surface Ecrg4 was associated with the detection of intact and processed Ecrg4 in the conditioned media of fresh leukocytes and was shown to be associated with the inflammatory response that follows severe, cutaneous burn injury. Furthermore, incubation of macrophages with a soluble Ecrg4-derived peptide increased the P-p65, suggesting that processing of an intact sentinel Ecrg4 on quiescent circulating leukocytes leads to processing from the cell surface following injury and macrophage activation. 

Baird A, Coimbra R, Dang X, et al. Cell surface localization and release of the candidate tumor suppressor Ecrg4 from polymorphonuclear cells and monocytes activate macrophages. J Leukoc Biol. 2012;91(5):773-81.

Augurin is a secretory molecule produced in pituitary, thyroid, and esophagus and implicated in a wide array of physiological processes, from ACTH release to tumor suppression. However, the specific proaugurin-derived peptides present in various cell types are not yet known. In order to shed light on the posttranslational modifications required for biological activity, we here describe the posttranslational processing of proaugurin in AtT-20 and Lovo cells and identify proaugurin-derived products generated by convertases. In vitro cleavage of proaugurin with proprotein convertases produced multiple peptides, including a major product with a mass of 9.7 kDa by mass spectrometry. Metabolic labeling of C-terminally tagged proaugurin in AtT-20 and AtT-20/PC2 cells resulted in a major 15-kDa tagged form on SDS-PAGE, which likely corresponds to the 9.7-kDa in vitro fragment, with the added tag, its linker, and posttranslational modification(s). The secretion of neither proaugurin nor this cleavage product was stimulated by forskolin, indicating its lack of storage in regulated secretory granules and lack of cleavage by PC2. Incubation of cells with the furin inhibitor nona-d-arginine resulted in impaired cleavage of proaugurin, whereas metalloprotease inhibitors did not affect proaugurin proteolysis. These data support the idea that proaugurin is cleaved by furin and secreted via the constitutive secretory pathway. Interestingly, proaugurin was sulfated during trafficking; sulfation was completely inhibited by brefeldin A. Proliferation assays with three different tumor cell lines demonstrated that only furin-cleaved proaugurin could suppress cell proliferation, suggesting that proteolytic cleavage is a posttranslational requirement for proaugurin to suppress cell proliferation.

Ozawa A, Lick AN, Lindberg I. Processing of proaugurin is required to suppress proliferation of tumor cell lines. Mol Endocrinol. 2011;25(5):776-84

BACKGROUND: The content and composition of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) is determined in large part by the choroid plexus (CP) and specifically, a specialized epithelial cell (CPe) layer that responds to, synthesizes, and transports peptide hormones into and out of CSF. Together with ventricular ependymal cells, these CPe relay homeostatic signals throughout the central nervous system (CNS) and regulate CSF hydrodynamics. One new candidate signal is augurin, a newly recognized 14 kDa protein that is encoded by esophageal cancer related gene-4 (Ecrg4), a putative tumor suppressor gene whose presence and function in normal tissues remains unexplored and enigmatic. The aim of this study was to explore whether Ecrg4 and its product augurin, can be implicated in CNS development and the response to CNS injury.
METHODS: Ecrg4 gene expression in CNS and peripheral tissues was studied by in situ hybridization and quantitative RT-PCR. Augurin, the protein encoded by Ecrg4, was detected by immunoblotting, immunohistochemistry and ELISA. The biological consequence of augurin over-expression was studied in a cortical stab model of rat CNS injury by intra-cerebro-ventricular injection of an adenovirus vector containing the Ecrg4 cDNA. The biological consequences of reduced augurin expression were evaluated by characterizing the CNS phenotype caused by Ecrg4 gene knockdown in developing zebrafish embryos.
RESULTS: Gene expression and immunohistochemical analyses revealed that, the CP is a major source of Ecrg4 in the CNS and that Ecrg4 mRNA is predominantly localized to choroid plexus epithelial (CPe), ventricular and central canal cells of the spinal cord. After a stab injury into the brain however, both augurin staining and Ecrg4 gene expression decreased precipitously. If the loss of augurin was circumvented by over-expressing Ecrg4 in vivo, BrdU incorporation by cells in the subependymal zone decreased. Inversely, gene knockdown of Ecrg4 in developing zebrafish embryos caused increased proliferation of GFAP-positive cells and induced a dose-dependent hydrocephalus-like phenotype that could be rescued by co-injection of antisense morpholinos with Ecrg4 mRNA.
CONCLUSION: An unusually elevated expression of the Ecrg4 gene in the CP implies that its product, augurin, plays a role in CP-CSF-CNS function. The results are all consistent with a model whereby an injury-induced decrease in augurin dysinhibits target cells at the ependymal-subependymal interface. We speculate that the ability of CP and ependymal epithelium to alter the progenitor cell response to CNS injury may be mediated, in part by Ecrg4. If so, the canonic control of its promoter by DNA methylation may implicate epigenetic mechanisms in neuroprogenitor fate and function in the CNS.

Gonzalez AM, Podvin S, Lin SY, et al. Ecrg4 expression and its product augurin in the choroid plexus: impact on fetal brain development, cerebrospinal fluid homeostasis and neuroprogenitor cell response to CNS injury. Fluids Barriers CNS. 2011;8(1):6.

BACKGROUND AND PURPOSE: The functional characterization of secreted peptides can provide the basis for the development of novel therapeutic agents. Augurin is a recently identified secreted peptide of unknown function expressed in multiple endocrine tissues, and in regions of the brain including the hypothalamus. We therefore investigated the effect of hypothalamic injection of augurin on the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in male Wistar rats.
EXPERIMENTAL APPROACH: Augurin was given as a single injection into the third cerebral ventricle (i.c.v.) or into the paraventricular nucleus (iPVN) of the hypothalamus. Circulating hormone levels were then measured by radioimmunoassay. The effect of augurin on the release of hypothalamic neuropeptides was investigated ex vivo using hypothalamic explants. The acute effects of iPVN augurin on behaviour were also assessed.
KEY RESULTS: i.c.v. injection of augurin significantly increased plasma ACTH and corticosterone, compared with vehicle-injected controls, but had no effect on other hypothalamo-pituitary axes hormones. Microinjection of lower doses of augurin into the PVN caused a similar increase in plasma ACTH and corticosterone, without significant alteration in behavioural patterns. Incubation of hypothalamic explants with increasing doses of augurin significantly elevated corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) and arginine vasopressin release. In vivo, peripheral injection of a CRF(1/2) receptor antagonist prevented the rise in ACTH and corticosterone caused by i.c.v. augurin injection.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS: These data suggest that augurin stimulates the release of ACTH via the release of hypothalamic CRF. Pharmacological manipulation of the augurin system may therefore be a novel target for regulation of the HPA axis.

Tadross JA, Patterson M, Suzuki K, et al. Augurin stimulates the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis via the release of corticotrophin-releasing factor in rats. Br J Pharmacol. 2010;159(8):1663-71.

Peptide hormones are small, processed, and secreted peptides that signal via membrane receptors and play critical roles in normal and pathological physiology. The search for novel peptide hormones has been hampered by their small size, low or restricted expression, and lack of sequence similarity. To overcome these difficulties, we developed a bioinformatics search tool based on the hidden Markov model formalism that uses several peptide hormone sequence features to estimate the likelihood that a protein contains a processed and secreted peptide of this class. Application of this tool to an alignment of mammalian proteomes ranked 90% of known peptide hormones among the top 300 proteins. An analysis of the top scoring hypothetical and poorly annotated human proteins identified two novel candidate peptide hormones. Biochemical analysis of the two candidates, which we called spexin and augurin, showed that both were localized to secretory granules in a transfected pancreatic cell line and were recovered from the cell supernatant. Spexin was expressed in the submucosal layer of the mouse esophagus and stomach, and a predicted peptide from the spexin precursor induced muscle contraction in a rat stomach explant assay. Augurin was specifically expressed in mouse endocrine tissues, including pituitary and adrenal gland, choroid plexus, and the atrio-ventricular node of the heart. Our findings demonstrate the utility of a bioinformatics approach to identify novel biologically active peptides. Peptide hormones and their receptors are important diagnostic and therapeutic targets, and our results suggest that spexin and augurin are novel peptide hormones likely to be involved in physiological homeostasis.

Mirabeau O, Perlas E, Severini C, et al. Identification of novel peptide hormones in the human proteome by hidden Markov model screening. Genome Res. 2007;17(3):320-7.

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