Diversity in Notch ligand-receptor signaling interactions

  1. Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125
  2. Howard Hughes Medical Institute, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125

Peer review process

Not revised: This Reviewed Preprint includes the authors’ original preprint (without revision), an eLife assessment, and public reviews.

Read more about eLife’s peer review process.


  • Reviewing Editor
    Vilaiwan Fernandes
    University College London, London, United Kingdom
  • Senior Editor
    Utpal Banerjee
    University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

The Notch signaling pathway plays an important role in many developmental and disease processes. Although well-studied there remain many puzzling aspects. One is the fact that as well as activating the receptor through trans-activation, the transmembrane ligands can interact with receptors present in the same cell. These cis-interactions are usually inhibitory, but in some cases, as in the assays used here, they may also be activating. With a total of 6 ligands and 4 receptors, there is potentially a wide array of possible outcomes when different combinations are co-expressed in vivo. Here the authors set out to make a systematic analysis of the qualitative and quantitative differences in the signaling output from different receptor-ligand combinations, generating sets of "signaling" (ligand expressing) and "receiving" (receptor +/- ligand expressing cells).

The readout of pathway activity is transcriptional, relying on the fusion of GAL4 in the intracellular part of the receptor. Positive ligand interactions result in the proteolytic release of Gal4 that turns on the expression of H2B-citrine. As an indicator of ligand and receptor expression levels, they are linked via TA to H2B mCherry and H2B mTurq expression respectively. The authors also manipulate the expression of the glycosyltransferase Lunatic-Fringe (LFng) that modifies the EGF repeats in the extracellular domains impacting their interactions. The testing of multiple ligand-receptor combinations at varying expression levels is a tour de force, with over 50 stable cell lines generated, and yields valuable insights although as a whole, the results are quite complex.

Taking a reductionist approach to testing systematically differences in the signaling strength, binding strength, and cis-interactions from the different ligands in the context of the Notch1 and Notch 2 receptors (they justify well the choice of players to test via this approach) produces a baseline understanding of the different properties and leads to some unexpected and interesting findings. Notably:

- Jag1 ligand expressing cells failed to activate Notch1 receptor although were capable of activating Notch2. Conversely, Jag2 cells elicited the strongest activation of both receptors. The results with Jag1 are surprising also because it exhibits some of the strongest binding to plate-bound ligands. The failure to activate Notch1 has major functional significance and it will be important in the future to understand the mechanistic basis.

- Jagged ligands have the strongest ciis-inhibitory effects and the receptors differ in their sensitivity to cis-inhibition by Dll ligands. These observations are in keeping with earlier in vivo and cell culture studies. More referencing of those would better place the work in context but it nicely supports and extends previous studies that were conducted in different ways.

- Responses to most trans-activating ligands showed a degree of ultrasensitivity but this was not the case for cis-interactions where effects were more linear. This has implications for the way the two mechanisms operate and for how the signaling levels will be impacted by ligand expression levels.

- Qualitatively similar results are obtained in a second cell line, suggesting they reflect fundamental properties of the ligands/receptors.

One weakness is that the methods used to quantify the expression of ligands and receptors rely on the co-translation of tagged nuclear H2B proteins. These may not accurately capture surface levels/correctly modified transmembrane proteins. In general, the multiple conditions tested partly compensate for the concerns - for example, as Jag1 cells do activate Notch2 even if they do not activate Notch1 some Jag1 must be getting to the surface. But even with Notch2, Jag1 activities are on the lower side, making it important to clarify, especially given the different outcomes with the plated ligands. Similarly, is the fact that all ligands "signalled strongest to Notch2" an inherent property or due to differences in surface levels of Notch 2 compared to Notch1? The results would be considerably strengthened by calibration of the ligand/receptor levels (and ideally their sub-cellular localizations). Assessing the membrane protein levels would be relatively straightforward to perform on some of the basic conditions because their ligand constructs contain Flag tags, making it plausible to relate surface protein to H2B, and there are antibodies available for Notch1 and Notch2.

Cis-activation as a mode of signaling has only emerged from these synthetic cell culture assays raising questions about its physiological relevance. Cis-activation is only seen at the higher ligand (Dll1, Dll4) levels, how physiological are the expression levels of the ligands/receptors in these assays? Is it likely that this would make a major contribution in vivo? Is it possible that the cells convert themselves into "signaling" and "receiving" sub-populations within the culture by post-translational mechanism? Again some analysis of the ligand/receptors in the cultures would be a valuable addition to show whether or not there are major heterogeneities.

It is hard to appreciate how much cell-to-cell variability in the "output" there is. For example, low "outputs" could arise from fewer cells becoming activated or from all cells being activated less. As presented, only the latter is considered. That may be already evident in their data, but not easy for the reader to distinguish from the way they are presented. For example, in many of the graphs, data have been processed through multiple steps of normalization. Some discussion/consideration of this point is needed.

Overall, cataloguing the outcomes from the different ligand-receptor combinations, both in cis and trans, yields a valuable baseline for those investigating their functional roles in different contexts. There is still a long way to go before it will be possible to make a predictive model for outcomes based on expression levels, but this work gives an idea about the landscape and the complexities. This is especially important now that signaling relationships are frequently hypothesised based on single-cell transcriptomic data. The results presented here demonstrate that the relationships are not straightforward when multiple players are involved.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

In this manuscript, the authors extend their previous studies on trans-activation, cis-inhibition (PMID: 25255098), and cis-activation (PMID: 30628888) of the Notch pathway. Here they create a large number of cell lines using CHO-K1 and C2C12 cells expressing either Notch1-Gal4 or Notch2-Gal4 receptors which express a fluorescent protein upon receptor activation (receiver cells). For cis-inhibition and cis-activation assays, these cells were engineered to express one of the four canonical Notch ligands (Dll1, Dll4, Jag1, Jag2) under tetracycline control. Some of the receiver cells were also transfected with a Lunatic fringe (Lfng) plasmid to produce cells with a range of Lfng expression levels. Sender cells expressing all of the canonical ligands were also produced. Cells were mixed in a variety of co-culture assays to highlight trans-activation, cis-activation, and cis-inhibition. All four ligands were able to trans-activate Notch1 and Notch 2, except Jag1 did not transactivate Notch1. Lfng enhanced trans-activation of both Notch receptors by Dll1 and Dll2, and inhibited Notch1 activation by Jag2 and Notch2 activation by both Jag 1 and Jag2. Cis-expression of all four ligands was predominantly inhibitory, but Dll1 and Dll4 showed strong cis-activation of Notch2. Interestingly, cis-ligands preferentially inhibited trans-activation by the same ligand, with varying effects on other trans-ligands.

This represents the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of the effects of canonical ligands on cis- and trans-activation, and cis-inhibition, of Notch1 and Notch2 in the presence or absence of Lfng so far. Studying cis-inhibition and cis-activation is difficult in vivo due to the presence of multiple Notch ligands and receptors (and Fringes) that often occur in single cells. The methods described here are a step towards generating cells expressing more complex arrays of ligands, receptors, and Fringes to better mimic in vivo effects on Notch function.

In addition, the fact that their transactivation results with most ligands on Notch1 and 2 in the presence or absence of Lfng were largely consistent with previous publications provides confidence that the author's assays are working properly.

It was unusual that the engineered CHO cells expressing Notch1-Gal4 were not activated at all by co-culture with Jag1-expressing CHO cells. Many previous reports have shown that Jag1 can activate Notch1 in co-culture assays, including when Notch1 was expressed in CHO cells. Interestingly, when the authors used Jag1-Fc in a plate coating assay, it did activate Notch1 and could be inhibited by the expression of Lfng.

The cell surface level of the ligands was determined by flow cytometry of a co-translated fluorescent protein. Some calibration of the actual cell surface levels with the fluorescent protein would strengthen the results.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

This manuscript reports a comprehensive analysis of Notch-Delta/Jagged signaling inclusive of the human Notch1 and Notch2 receptors and DLL1, DLL4, JAG1, and JAG2 ligands. Measurements encompassed signaling activity for ligand trans-activation, cis-activation, cis-inhibition, and activity modulation by Lfng. The most striking observations of the study are that JAG1 has no detectable activity as a Notch1 ligand when presented on a cell (though it does have activity when immobilized on a surface), even though it is an effective cis-inhibitor of Notch1 signaling by other ligands, and that DLL1 and DLL4 exhibit cis-activating activity for Notch1 and especially for Notch2. Notwithstanding the artificiality of the system and some of its shortcomings, the results should nevertheless be a valuable resource for the Notch signaling community.


  1. The work is systematic and comprehensive, addressing questions that are of importance to the community of researchers investigating mammalian Notch proteins, their activation by ligands, and the modulation of ligand activity by LFng.
  2. A quantitative and thorough analysis of the data is presented.


  1. The manuscript is primarily descriptive and does not delve into the underlying, mechanistic origin or source of the different ligand activities.

  2. The amount of ligand or receptor expressed is inferred from the flow cytometry signal of a co-translated fluorescent protein-histone fusion, and is not directly measured. The work would be more compelling if the amount of ligand present on the cell surface were directly measured with anti-ligand antibodies, rather than inferred from measurements of the fluorescent protein-histone fusion.

  3. It would be helpful to see plots of the raw activity data before transformation and normalization, because the plots present data after several processing steps, and it is not clear how the processed data relate to the original values determined in each measurement.

  4. The authors use sparse plating of engineered cells with parental (no ligand or receptor-expressing cell to measure cis activation). However, the cells divide within the cultured period of 22-24 h and can potentially trans-activate each other.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation