Background: Tau protein exists as six different isoforms that differ by the inclusion or exclusion of exons 2, 3 and 10. Exon 10 encodes a microtubule binding repeat, thereby resulting in three isoforms with three microtubule binding repeats (3R) and three isoforms that have four microtubule binding repeats (4R). In normal adult brain, the relative amounts of 3R tau and 4R tau are approximately equal. These relative protein levels are preserved in Alzheimer's disease, although in other neurodegenerative tauopathies such as progressive supranuclear palsy, corticobasal degeneration and Pick's disease, the ratio of 3R:4R is frequently altered. Because tau isoforms are not equally involved in these diseases, it is possible that they either have inherently unique characteristics owing to their primary structures or that post-translational modification, such as phosphorylation, differentially affects their properties.
Results: We have determined the effects of phosphorylation by a kinase widely believed to be involved in neurodegenerative processes, glycogen synthase kinase-3β (GSK-3β), on the microtubule binding and inducer-initiated polymerization of these isoforms in vitro. We have found that each isoform has a unique microtubule binding and polymerization profile that is altered by GSK-3β. GSK-3β phosphorylation had differential effects on the isoforms although there were similarities between isoforms and the effects were generally mild.
Conclusion: These results indicate that tau phosphorylation by a single kinase can have isoform specific outcomes. The mild nature of these changes, however, makes it unlikely that differential effects of GSK-3β phosphorylation on the isoforms are causative in neurodegenerative disease. Instead, the inherent differences in the isoform interactions themselves and local conditions in the diseased cells are likely the major determinant of isoform involvement in various neurodegenerative disorders.
Voss, Kellen, and T Chris Gamblin. 2009. “GSK-3beta Phosphorylation of Functionally Distinct Tau Isoforms Has Differential, but Mild Effects.” Molecular Neurodegeneration 4:18. http://dx.doi.org/10.1186/1750-1326-4-18.