Germline mutations in the folliculin (FLCN) tumor suppressor gene are linked to Birt-Hogg- Dubé(BHD) syndrome, a dominantly inherited genetic disease characterized by predisposition to fibrofolliculomas, lung cysts, and renal cancer. Most BHD-linked FLCN variants include large deletions and splice site aberrations predicted to cause loss of function. The mechanisms by which missense variants and short in-frame deletions in FLCN trigger disease are unknown. Here, we present an integrated computational and experimental study that reveals that the majority of such disease-causing FLCN variants cause loss of function due to proteasomal degradation of the encoded FLCN protein, rather than directly ablating FLCN function. Accordingly, several different single-site FLCN variants are present at strongly reduced levels in cells. In line with our finding that FLCN variants are protein quality control targets, several are also highly insoluble and fail to associate with the FLCN-binding partners FNIP1 and FNIP2. The lack of FLCN binding leads to rapid proteasomal degradation of FNIP1 and FNIP2. Half of the tested FLCN variants are mislocalized in cells, and one variant (ΔE510) forms perinuclear protein aggregates. A yeast-based stability screen revealed that the deubiquitylating enzyme Ubp15/USP7 and molecular chaperones regulate the turnover of the FLCN variants. Lowering the temperature led to a stabilization of two FLCN missense proteins, and for one (R362C), function was re-established at low temperature. In conclusion, we propose that most BHD-linked FLCN missense variants and small inframe deletions operate by causing misfolding and degradation of the FLCN protein, and that stabilization and resulting restoration of function may hold therapeutic potential of certain disease-linked variants. Our computational saturation scan encompassing both missense variants and single site deletions in FLCN may allow classification of rare FLCN variants of uncertain clinical significance.
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© 2020 Clausen et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.