JNKs function as CDK4-activating kinases by phosphorylating CDK4 and p21
Cyclin D-CDK4/6 are the first cyclin-dependent kinase (CDK) complexes to be activated by mitogenic/oncogenic pathways. They have a central role in the cell multiplication decision and in its deregulation in cancer cells. We identified T172 phosphorylation of CDK4 rather than cyclin D accumulation as the distinctly regulated step determining CDK4 activation. This finding challenges the view that the only identified metazoan CDK-activating kinase, cyclin H-CDK7-Mat1 (CAK), which is constitutively active, is responsible for the activating phosphorylation of all cell cycle CDKs. We previously showed that T172 phosphorylation of CDK4 is conditioned by an adjacent proline (P173), which is not present in CDK6 and CDK1/2. Although CDK7 activity was recently shown to be required for CDK4 activation, we proposed that proline-directed kinases might specifically initiate the activation of CDK4. Here, we report that JNKs, but not ERK1/2 or CAK, can be direct CDK4-activating kinases for cyclin D-CDK4 complexes that are inactivated by p21-mediated stabilization. JNKs and ERK1/2 also phosphorylated p21 at S130 and T57, which might facilitate CDK7-dependent activation of p21-bound CDK4, however, mutation of these sites did not impair the phosphorylation of CDK4 by JNKs. In two selected tumor cells, two different JNK inhibitors inhibited the phosphorylation and activation of cyclin D1-CDK4-p21 but not the activation of cyclin D3-CDK4 that is mainly associated to p27. Specific inhibition by chemical genetics in MEFs confirmed the involvement of JNK2 in cyclin D1-CDK4 activation. Therefore, JNKs could be activating kinases for cyclin D1-CDK4 bound to p21, by independently phosphorylating both CDK4 and p21.