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National Institutes of Health

Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

2023 Annual Report of the Division of Intramural Research

Phosphoinositide Messengers in Cellular Signaling and Trafficking

Tamas Balla
  • Tamás Balla, MD, PhD, Head, Section on Molecular Signal Transduction
  • Alejandro Alvarez-Prats, PhD, Staff Scientist
  • Yeun Ju Kim, PhD, Staff Scientist
  • Gergo Gulyás, MD, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Amrita Mandal, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Yang Niu, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Joshua Pemberton, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Pooja Rohilla, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Farkas Sarnyai, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Vijay Joshi, BS, Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award Fellow

Every biochemical process in a eukaryotic cell relies upon a molecular information flow that leads from receptors that inform the cell about its environment all the way to the molecular effectors that determine the appropriate cellular response. Proper information transmission requires a high degree of organization, where the molecular players are organized into different cellular compartments so that the specificity of the cellular response can be properly maintained. Breakdown of this organization is the ultimate cause of all human diseases, even if the affected molecular pathways differ according to the kind of disease, such as cancer, diabetes, or neuro-degenerative diseases, just to name a few.

Our research focuses on the question of how cells organize their internal membranes to provide a structural framework on which molecular signaling complexes assemble to ensure proper information processing. The lipid composition of cellular membranes is a major determinant of their biophysical properties and is unique to the different cellular organelles. How cells achieve and maintain the proper lipid composition of their membranes is poorly understood. Cellular processes that affect the membrane lipid composition of organelles are often targeted by cellular pathogens, such as viruses, to force the cells to produce the pathogen instead of performing the cells' normal functions. Better understanding of these processes not only provides new strategies to fight various human diseases but also to intercept the life cycle of cellular pathogens, offering an alternative to antimicrobial drugs.

Metabolic routing maintains the unique fatty acid composition of phosphoinositides.

A unique feature of phosphatidylinositol (PI) and its phosphorylated PPIn derivatives is that they are highly enriched in poly-unsaturated arachidonic acid at the sn-2 position (stereospecific numbering, second carbon of glycerol) of the glycerol backbone, such that the stearoyl (C18:0)-arachidonoyl (C20:4) species is the predominant cellular form of PI. The metabolic processes responsible for regulating this enrichment are not fully understood, nor is it known what importance this unique side chain composition has for normal cell physiology. In this series of studies, we investigated the question as to whether PI synthesis uses a specific dedicated pool of the lipid precursor phosphatidic acid (PA) in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). Given that the PA pools in the ER originate from different metabolic pathways, such as de novo synthesis or phospholipase C (PLC)– and phospholipase D (PLD)–mediated PA generation, it was important to determine whether PAs coming from all these sources are equally available for PI synthesis. We used a combination of approaches, all applied to a single cell line, to gain comprehensive information on the metabolic fates of PI precursors by following their side chain signature and matching their kinetics with bioluminescent resonance energy transfer (BRET)–based lipid measurements specifically within the plasma membrane (PM). We also performed lipidomics analyses and combined it with isotope labeling and pharmacological studies to identify differences in the handling of lipid intermediates with a specific fatty-acid composition that are involved in PPIn homeostasis. These studies concluded that metabolic routing of PA occurs at the ER and shows a clear preference for the stearoyl-arachidonoyl (38:4) species of diacylglycerol (DAG) as well as PA for conversion into PI, especially during the rapid recycling of breakdown products generated through PI(4,5)P2 hydrolysis upon PLC activation within the PM. The significance of the studies is that by improving our understanding of the principles by which lipid precursors are segregated in the ER to serve various lipid-synthetic routes, it will be possible to selectively alter cellular lipid metabolism to interfere with lipid storage without affecting the membrane architecture of eukaryotic cells and organisms.

PI4K2A mutations in humans with developmental and epileptic-dyskinetic encephalopathy cause innate error in intracellular trafficking.

PI4K2A is one of the four PI 4-kinase enzymes that generates the lipid phosphatidylinositol 4-phosphate (PI4P) in cellular membranes. PI4K2A is located at the trans-Golgi network as well as on the surface of endosomes, providing PI4P primarily in the late endosomal/lysosomal compartment. Recent studies from our laboratory showed that in late endosomes PI4K2A is required for efficient fusion of autophagosomes and lysosomes. Other studies showed a critical role of PI4K2A in the repair of damaged lysosomes. Our group was approached by the clinical genetic group of Reza Maroofian. They identified two patients presented with developmental and epileptic-dyskinetic encephalopathy associated with corpus callosum dysgenesis, diffuse white matter volume loss, and hypoplastic vermis, as shown by neuroimaging. In addition, these patients showed neuro-developmental delay and recurrent infections with one of them dying at toddler age. Whole-exome sequencing revealed mutations in the PI4K2A gene. Our group performed functional studies recreating these mutations in PI4K2A and testing the properties of the protein in cells in which the PI4K2A gene was inactivated by CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing. The studies showed that the mutant enzyme lost its ability to localize to endomembranes and to catalyze the formation of PI4P in late endosomes. Understanding the consequences of PI4K2A defects in humans and their link to the clinical presentation will help us better understand the complexities of brain development and the identification of new means by which such disease conditions can be improved.

Calcium-prolactin secretion coupling in rat pituitary lactotrophs is controlled by PI4-kinase alpha.

Exocytosis is one of the most important membrane-remodeling events by which bioactive molecules, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, are rapidly secreted from cells to alter the function of other cells. The release of cargo from secretory vesicles requires their fusion with the plasma membrane (PM). Rapid Ca2+ elevation in the cytoplasm is the most commonly used signal to trigger this process, both in synaptic transmission and hormone release from endocrine cells. Phosphoinositide lipids (PPIns), in particular PI(4,5)P2 enriched in the PM, are critical for membrane fusion event. In this collaborative study, led by the group of Stanko Stojilkovic, we tested which PPIns control the exocytosis process in the cells of the pituitary gland. Single-cell RNA sequencing in cells obtained from rat pituitaries revealed the expression of several PI lipid kinases such as Pi4ka, Pi4kb, Pi4k2a, Pi4k2b, Pip5k1a, Pip5k1c, and Pik3ca, as well as Pikfyve and Pip4k2c, in at least 10% of lactotrophs cells, which are responsible for the secretion of prolactin (PRL). Using a pharmacological approach to specifically inhibit these enzymes, it was possible to show that PI4P made in the PM by PI4KA is critical for exocytosis without affecting the calcium signals, which trigger secretion. The experiments also showed that inhibition of the PI4KB enzyme, which generates PI4P in the Golgi, is dispensable for the exocytic step and revealed a key role of PI4KA–derived PI4P in the PM in calcium-secretion coupling in pituitary lactotrophs downstream of voltage-gated and PI(4,5)P2–dependent calcium signaling. The studies identified a new type of regulation in the exocytic process, which is currently being further investigated.

Additional Funding

  • Early Investigator Award for Gergo Gulyás


  1. Balla T, Gulyás G, Mandal A, Alvarez-Prats A, Niu Y, Kim YJ, Pemberton J. Roles of phosphatidylinositol 4-phosphorylation in non-vesicular cholesterol trafficking. Adv Exp Med Biol 2023 1422:327–352.
  2. Dafsari HS, Pemberton JG, Ferrer EA, Yammine T, Farra C, Mohammadi MH, Ghayoor Karimiani E, Hashemi N, Souaid M, Sabbagh S, Najarzadeh Torbati P, Khan S, Roze E, Moreno-De-Luca A, Bertoli-Avella AM, Houlden H, Balla T, Maroofian R. PI4K2A deficiency causes innate error in intracellular trafficking with developmental and epileptic-dyskinetic encephalopathy. Ann Clin Transl Neurol 2022 9:1345–1358.
  3. Kim YJ, Sengupta N, Sohn M, Mandal A, Pemberton JG, Choi U, Balla T. Metabolic routing maintains the unique fatty acid composition of phosphoinositides. EMBO Reports 2022 23(7):e54532.
  4. Kučka M, Gonzalez-Iglesias AE, Tomić M, Prévide RM, Smiljanic K, Sokanovic SJ, Fletcher PA, Sherman A, Balla T, Stojilkovic SS. Calcium-prolactin secretion coupling in rat pituitary lactotrophs is controlled by PI4-kinase alpha. Front Endocrinol 2021 12:790441.
  5. Gulyás G, Korzeniowski MK, Eugenio CEB, Vaca L, Kim YJ, Balla T. LIPID transfer proteins regulate store-operated calcium entry via control of plasma membrane phosphoinositides. Cell Calcium 2022 106:102631.


  • Evžen Boura, PhD, Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, Czech Republic
  • John Burke, PhD, University of Victoria, Victoria, Canada
  • Reza Maroofian, MD, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London, United Kingdom
  • Juan Marugan, PhD, Division of Pre-Clinical Innovation, NCATS, Bethesda, MD
  • Stanko Stojikovic, PhD, Section on Cellular Signaling, NICHD, Bethesda, MD
  • Péter Várnai, MD, PhD, Semmelweis University, Faculty of Medicine, Budapest, Hungary


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