The aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) is a cytosolic receptor which is involved in diverse cellular events in humans. The most well-characterized function of AHR is its ability to upregulate gene transcription after exposure to its ligands, such as environmental toxicants, dietary antioxidants, drugs, and endogenous ligands. The cellular content of AHR is partly controlled by its degradation via the ubiquitin–proteasome system and the lysosome-dependent autophagy. We used human cervical cancer (HeLa) cells to investigate how AHR undergoes protein degradation and how its activity is modulated. Since the glycogen synthase kinase 3 beta (GSK3β)-mediated phosphorylation can trigger protein degradation and substrates of GSK3β contain stretches of serine/threonine residues which can be found in AHR, we examined whether degradation and activity of AHR can be controlled by GSK3β. We observed that AHR undergoes the GSK3β-dependent, LC3-mediated lysosomal degradation without ligand treatment. The AHR can be phosphorylated in a GSK3β-dependent manner at three putative sites (S436/S440/S444, S689/S693/T697, and S723/S727/T731), which leads to lysosomal degradation of the AHR protein. Inhibition of the GSK3β activity suppresses the ligand-activated transcription of an AHR target gene in HeLa, human liver cancer (Hep3B), and human breast cancer (MCF-7) cells. Collectively, our findings support that phosphorylation of AHR by GSK3β is essential for the optimal activation of its target gene transcription and this phosphorylation may partake as an “off” switch by subjecting the receptor to lysosomal degradation.
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