The Drosophila sugarless and sulfateless genes encode enzymes required for the biosynthesis of heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycans. Biochemical studies have shown that heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycans are involved in signaling by fibroblast growth factor receptors, but evidence for such a requirement in an intact organism has not been available. We now demonstrate that sugarless and sulfateless mutant embryos have phenotypes similar to those lacking the functions of two Drosophila fibroblast growth factor receptors, Heartless and Breathless. Moreover, both Heartless- and Breathless-dependent MAPK activation is significantly reduced in embryos which fail to synthesize heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycans. Consistent with an involvement of Sulfateless and Sugarless in fibroblast growth factor receptor signaling, a constitutively activated form of Heartless partially rescues sugarless and sulfateless mutants, and dosage-sensitive interactions occur between heartless and the heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycan biosynthetic enzyme genes. We also find that overexpression of Branchless, the Breathless ligand, can partially overcome the requirement of Sugarless and Sulfateless for Breathless activity. These results provide the first genetic evidence that heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycans are essential for fibroblast growth factor receptor signaling in a well defined developmental context, and support a model in which heparan sulfate glycosaminoglycans facilitate fibroblast growth factor ligand and/or ligand-receptor oligomerization.

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