Rho family GTPase inhibition reveals opposing effects of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase/extracellular signal-regulated kinase and Janus kinase/signal transducer and activator of transcription signaling cascades on neuronal survival

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Rho family GTPases promote the survival of certain neuronal populations. However, pro-survival and pro-death signaling pathways regulated downstream of Rho GTPases are largely unknown. Cerebellar granule neurons (CGNs) exposed to Clostridium difficile toxin B (ToxB), a monoglucosyltransferase that specifically inhibits Rho GTPases, die by a mitochondrial apoptotic cascade. Using a high-throughput immunoblotting screen (BD Powerblot), we found that ToxB markedly reduced the expression of Rac1 and c-Raf, upstream components of a Rac-dependent mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase pathway. Moreover, ToxB rapidly suppressed a p21-activated kinase/MAP kinase kinase (MEK)/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK)1/2 signaling cascade that normally promotes degradation of the Bcl-2 homology-3 (BH3)-only protein Bim, a key initiator of mitochondrial apoptosis. In contrast to c-Raf down-regulation, ToxB enhanced expression of the transcription factor, signal transducer and activator of transcription-1 (STAT1). Both STAT1 up-regulation and apoptosis induced by ToxB were prevented by a pan-inhibitor of Janus kinases (JAKs), indicating that JAK/STAT signaling was pro-apoptotic in CGNs. Most significantly, direct inhibition of MEK was sufficient to trigger JAK-dependent STAT1 expression, suggesting that cross-talk between MEK/ERK and JAK/STAT pathways plays a key role in regulating neuronal survival. Finally, ERK dephosphorylation and STAT1 up-regulation induced by ToxB were mimicked by a dominant-negative (N17) mutant of Rac1. These data suggest that the MEK/ERK cascade functions downstream of Rac GTPase to actively repress pro-apoptotic JAK/STAT signaling in healthy CGNs.

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