- Open Access
Dimerization in protein kinase signaling
© BioMed Central Ltd 2006
- Published: 19 July 2006
The closely related mitogen-activated protein kinases ERK1 and ERK2 have now been shown to have opposing roles in Ras-mediated cell proliferation. I propose that dimerization of these highly related protein kinases could underlie these surprising observations and that this could be a common paradigm for widespread regulation of protein phosphorylation by kinase-substrate interactions.
- Heterodimeric Complex
- Mixed Lineage Kinase
- Kinase MST1
- Dimeric Substrate
- Activate Kinase MEK1
Two closely related mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases, extracellular signal-regulated protein kinase (ERK)1 and ERK2, are known to be involved in the regulation of cell proliferation. These ubiquitous protein-serine/threonine kinases are well known as key players in signaling pathways downstream of growth-factor receptor-tyrosine kinases, cytokine receptors and G-protein-coupled receptors ; they often indirectly mediate the actions of members of the Ras family of small GTPases. Gain-of-function mutations have been implicated in more than 30% of human tumors, but chronic activation of Ras by mutated mitogen receptors occurs in even higher frequency than this . Most previously published work has inferred that ERK1 and ERK2 are commonly regulated and that they target the same substrates. In this issue of the Journal of Biology, however, Riccardo Brambilla and colleagues  provide compelling evidence that the two ERK proteins in fact counteract each other in the regulation of the cell-proliferation effects of Ras in mouse fibroblasts.
Vantaggiato and Formentini et al.  have demonstrated that induced reduction of ERK1 expression using antisense constructs leads to enhanced ERK2 function and increased Ras-dependent cell proliferation, whereas knockdown of ERK2 expression has the opposite effect on cell growth. Furthermore, they found that catalytically inactive (knockdown or KD) and active (wild-type or WT) forms of ERK1 were equally capable of inhibiting oncogenic Ras-mediated cell proliferation, cell colony growth in soft agar, and tumor formation in nude mice. These findings run counter to the popular notion that the ERK1 and ERK2 MAP kinases, which share 83% amino-acid identity, have similar if not the same functions .
At first glance, it is extraordinary that ERK1 can inhibit oncogenic Ras-mediated cell proliferation, given that it was thought that ERK1 and ERK2 have the same targets and functions. Ras mediates the recruitment of the protein-serine/threonine kinases Raf1 and RafB to the plasma membrane, where they become phosphorylated and activated by several other protein kinases. In turn, the Rafs phosphorylate and activate the MAP kinase kinases MEK1 and MEK2, which then phosphorylate and stimulate ERK1 and ERK2. Hyperactivation of Ras and other oncoproteins that stimulate this canonical MAP kinase pathway can induce apoptosis; Vantaggiato and Formentini et al.  have shown, however, that the antagonistic effects of ERK1 on Ras action are not simply due to an overall gain of MAP kinase activity that elicits a feedback inhibition response.
To explain their surprising observations, Vantaggiato and Formentini et al.  have proposed a simple competition model for the interaction of ERK1 and ERK2 with their immediate upstream activating kinases MEK1 and MEK2. They argue that ERK1 might act by displacing ERK2 from MEK1 and MEK2. If this were the case, it might be possible to compensate for the effect of WT-ERK1 or KD-ERK1 on reduction of phosphorylation of ERK2 by increasing the levels of MEK1 or MEK2, thus reducing the amount of competition. The authors  also found, however, that the suppressive effects of WT-ERK1 or KD-ERK1 on Ras-induced cell proliferation were even greater when a version of ERK2 was used that was defective in its kinase activity. This indicates that simple competition for MEK1 or MEK2 is insufficient to account for the results entirely; there is in fact no evidence that ERK1 and ERK2 do not compete equally for binding to MEK1 and MEK2.
Elevated phosphoprotein levels detected by western blotting with phosphorylation-site-specific antibodies can reflect a rise in the number of protein molecules (if the stoichiometry of phosphorylation is unchanged), increases in the rates of phosphorylation, or reductions in the rates of dephosphorylation of these proteins. In most cell lines the phosphorylation signals were higher for ERK2 than for ERK1, whereas the total protein levels of ERK2 were generally much lower than those of ERK1. This indicates that, in general, ERK2 was preferentially activated over ERK1 in the proliferating cells. If phospho-ERK2 is more susceptible to proteolysis when it is activated, that could also account for the lower protein levels of ERK2 relative to ERK1 in proliferating cells.
In their study, Vantaggiato and Formentini et al.  have speculated that the rates of translocation and sequestration of ERK1 and ERK2 to the nucleus or their dephosphorylation may differ. They also point out that there could be subtle differences in the substrate specificity of ERK1 and ERK2. Even though these two kinases are both directed to their phosphorylation site by proline-rich motifs and appear to have identical preferences for the consensus phosphorylation site sequence in their substrates (Pro-X-Ser/Thr-Pro) [5, 6], there are additional specialized docking sites on MAP kinase substrates, such as D-domains (a cluster of basic amino-acid residues surrounded by hydrophobic amino-acid residues) and DEF domains (Phe/Tyr-X-Phe/Tyr-Pro) that might confer additional specificity [7, 8].
The ability of MAP kinases to dimerize contributes yet another level of complexity to their regulation and substrate specificity. Over the past few years, there has been mounting evidence that ERK1 and ERK2 are retained in inactive states in the cytoplasm of cells, bound in dimeric complexes with MEK1 and MEK2 [9, 10]. Direct phosphorylation of these MEK isoforms (human MEK1 at Ser217 and Ser221; MEK2 at Ser222 and Ser226) by upstream kinases (such as Raf1, RafB, RafA and Mos) stimulates their ability to phosphorylate and activate the associated ERK isoform (human ERK1 at Thr202 and Tyr204; human ERK2 at Thr185 and Tyr187) . This also triggers the release of the ERK isoform from its MEK partner and its subsequent reassociation into active ERK homodimers [11–14]. MEK1 and MEK2 have nuclear exclusion sequences that normally prevent MEK-ERK heterodimers from accumulating in the nucleus . Following their phosphorylation and release, however, activated ERK1 and ERK2 can enter the cell nucleus both by passive diffusion and by active transport [9–11, 13, 16]. Once in the nucleus, the MAP kinases can phosphorylate transcription factors that are important for cell-cycle progression. Careful studies have revealed that ERK1 and ERK2 homodimers are more catalytically active than their monomeric counterparts [14, 17].
The ERK and MEK expression data presented in Figure 1 supports this model. There is a strong correlation between the total combined levels of expression of ERK1 and ERK2 and the total combined expression levels of MEK1 and MEK2 across the many organs examined (a notable exception appears to be the mouse breast). This indicates that most of the inactive ERK1 and ERK2 in cells is bound to MEK1 and MEK2, although there is no obvious preferential binding of either ERK to either MEK.
Melanie Cobb and Elizabeth Goldsmith , starting from their solution of the dimeric X-ray crystallographic structure of ERK2, proposed that the formation of an ERK2 homodimer could be important for the recognition of dimeric substrates. Many transcription factors that are targeted by MAP kinases, such as the AP1 Fos-Jun complex, also occur as dimers. They predicted that the occurrence of heterodimeric complexes of WT-ERK2 and KD-ERK2 would result in incomplete phosphorylation of a dimeric substrate . They also noted that ERK1 and ERK2 can form heterodimeric complexes, but that these are unstable. It would seem that this model would account nicely for the findings of Vantaggiato and Formentini et al. , as KD-ERK2 should be a more potent inhibitor of active ERK2 dimer formation than WT-ERK1 or KD-ERK1. Apart from reduced stability, however, why would the WT-ERK1-WT-ERK2 heterodimer not be as functional as a WT-ERK2-WT-ERK2 homodimer? One possibility is the WT-ERK1-WT-ERK2 heterodimer will not dock transcription-factor substrates as efficiently, as the amino-terminal regions of ERK1 and ERK2, which are located near the active sites of these enzymes in the dimeric complex, are quite distinct, with ERK1 featuring an additional 17 amino acids that are not present in ERK2. Interestingly, in a study of protein kinases that interact with AP1 transcription-factor complexes, ERK2 but not ERK1 was detected .
The related stress-activated MAP kinase p38 would not be expected to interact with MEK1 or MEK2, but rather with its own upstream activating kinases, MEK3 and MEK6 . As a control, the Vantaggiato and Formentini et al. study  also transfected mouse fibroblasts with p38-α, which appeared to have relatively little effect on ERK1 and ERK2 phosphorylation or Ras-induced cell proliferation. In these experiments, however, p38 was not stimulated. Activation of p38 by diverse cellular insults is known to inhibit ERK1 and ERK2 activation [20, 21]. Furthermore, high ratios of either phospho-ERK1 or phospho-ERK2 relative to phospho-p38, or ERK1/2 activity relative to p38 activity, were observed to be strong predictors of tumorigenicity of breast, prostate, melanoma, and fibrosarcoma cell lines in vivo . One explanation for these findings is that phosphorylated and active p38-α and p38-δ isoforms appear to form inhibitory complexes with ERK1 and ERK2 [20, 21]. But there is also one report of a splice variant of p38 called Mxi2 that seems to bind and stabilize both ERK1 and ERK2 in the nucleus to prolong their signaling . There have been no reports of p38 homodimers, although ERK5  and the c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) family of MAP kinases appear to form homodimers . Heterodimerization of c-Jun with other transcription proteins seems to be important for their recognition for phosphorylation by JNK MAP kinases .
For a substantial proportion of the 515 known human protein kinases, the appearance of two or more kinase catalytic domains in the holoenzyme forms has been directly reported or can be inferred from the high levels of homology among related kinase subfamily members. All of the 58 receptor-tyrosine kinases probably dimerize when activated, and this may also be true for the 20 receptor-serine/threonine kinases. Furthermore, the existence of heterodimeric complexes between diverse receptor-tyrosine kinases (such as between IGF1 receptor and ErbB2 , and between the receptors for PDGF and EGF ) has been described. At least eight non-receptor-tyrosine kinases have multiple kinase catalytic domains, either within the same polypeptide chain (JAK1-3, TYK2) or in holoenzymes (Abl, FAK, BMX, BTK) and, on the basis of the levels of homology, Arg, Pyk2, ITK, and TEC are strong candidates as well. By contrast, there is no evidence for dimerization of Syk, ZAP70 or any of the Src kinase family members, despite exhaustive studies of these enzymes.
When it comes to the non-receptor protein-serine/threonine kinases, eight have tandem catalytic domains (SgK069, GCN2, MSK1, MSK2 and RSK1-4), whereas at least 59 others have been reported to dimerize or oligomerize. Again, on the basis of strong homology, at least another 36 protein kinases are likely to also undergo complex formation. Some notable exceptions for dimerization include all of the protein kinase C isoforms and the cyclin-dependent kinases. In view of the very limited enzymological characterization of most protein-serine/threonine kinases, however, it may well be that more than half of them are subject to homo- and heterodimeric catalytic kinase domain interactions. Like the MAP kinases, dimerization may have a profound impact on their regulation and their substrate selectivity.
In conclusion, dimerization has a crucial role in the regulation of many kinases, and this might help to explain the seemingly paradoxical results of Vantaggiato and Formentini et al. . Another important ramification of the study  is that chemotherapy drugs that inhibit ERK2 more than ERK1 could be more optimal for inhibition of oncogenic cell proliferation, but that selective inhibition of ERK1 might actually enhance cell growth and division and tumorigenesis. Overall, it is clear that detailed studies of the differences in regulation between related members of kinase families can yield considerable insights into their specialized functions.
- Roux PP, Blenis J: ERK and p38 MAPK-activated protein kinases: a family of protein kinases with diverse biological functions. Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 2004, 68: 320-344. 10.1128/MMBR.68.2.320-344.2004.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Petak I, Houghton JA, Kopper L: Molecular targeting of cell death signal transduction pathways in cancer. Curr Signal Trans Therapy. 2006, 1: 113-131. 10.2174/157436206775269217.View ArticleGoogle Scholar
- Vantaggiato C, Formentini I, Bondanza A, Bonini C, Naldini L, Brambilla R: ERK1 and ERK2 motogen-activated proteins kinases differentially affect Ras-dependent signal transduction and cell growth. J Biol. 2006, 5: 14-PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- KiNET. [http://www.kinexus.ca/kinet]
- Gonzalez FA, Raden DL, Davis RJ: Identification of substrate recognition determinants for human ERK1 and ERK2 protein kinases. J Biol Chem. 1991, 266: 22159-22163.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Veeranna , Amin ND, Ahn NG, Jaffe H, Winters CA, Grant P, Pant HC: Mitogen-activated protein kinases (Erk1,2) phosphorylate Lys-Ser-Pro (KSP) repeats in neurofilament proteins NF-H and NF-M. J Neurosci. 1998, 18: 4008-4021.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Tanoue T, Nishida E: Molecular recognitions in the MAP kinase cascades. Cell Signal. 2003, 15: 455-462. 10.1016/S0898-6568(02)00112-2.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Fantz DA, Jacobs D, Glossip D, Kornfeld K: Docking sites on substrate proteins direct extracellular signal-regulated kinase to phosphorylate specific residues. J Biol Chem. 2001, 276: 27256-27265. 10.1074/jbc.M102512200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Adachi M, Fukuda M, Nishida E: Two co-existing mechanisms for nuclear import of MAP kinase: passive diffusion of a monomer and active transport of a dimer. EMBO J. 1999, 18: 5347-5358. 10.1093/emboj/18.19.5347.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Burack WR, Shaw AS: Live cell imaging of ERK and MEK: simple binding equilibrium explains the regulated nucleocytoplasmic distribution of ERK. J Biol Chem. 2005, 280: 3832-3827. 10.1074/jbc.M410031200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Khokhlatchev AV, Canagarajah B, Wilsbacher J, Robinson M, Atkinson M, Goldsmith E, Cobb MH: Phosphorylation of the MAP kinase ERK2 promotes its homodimerization and nuclear translocation. Cell. 1998, 93: 605-615. 10.1016/S0092-8674(00)81189-7.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Wolf I, Rubinfeld H, Yoon S, Marmor G, Hanoch T, Seger R: Involvement of the activation loop of ERK in the detachment from cytosolic anchoring. J Biol Chem. 2001, 276: 24490-24497. 10.1074/jbc.M103352200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Horgan AM, Stork PJS: Examining the mechanism of Erk nuclear translocation using green fluorescent protein. Exp Cell Res. 2003, 285: 208-220. 10.1016/S0014-4827(03)00037-5.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Philipova R, Whitaker M: Active ERK1 is dimerized in vivo: bisphosphodimers generate peak kinase activity and monophosphodimers maintain basal ERK1 activity. J Cell Sci. 2005, 118: 5767-5776. 10.1242/jcs.02683.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Fukuda M, Gotoh I, Gotoh Y, Nishida E: Cytoplasmic localization of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase directed by its NH2 terminal, leucine-rich short amino acid sequence, which acts as a nuclear export signal. J Biol Chem. 1996, 271: 20024-20028. 10.1074/jbc.271.33.20024.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Shibayama S, Shibata-Seita R, Miura K, Kirino Y, Takishima K: Identification of a C-terminal region that is required for the nuclear translocation of ERK2 by passive diffusion. J Biol Chem. 2002, 277: 37777-37782. 10.1074/jbc.M206163200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Waas WF, Rainey MA, Szafranska AE, Dalby KN: Two rate-limiting steps in the kinetic mechanism of the serine/threonine specific protein kinase ERK2: a case of fast phosphorylation followed by fast product release. Biochemistry. 2003, 42: 12273-12286. 10.1021/bi0348617.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Cobb MH, Goldsmith EJ: Dimerization in MAP-kinase signaling. Trends Biochem Sci. 2000, 25: 7-9. 10.1016/S0968-0004(99)01508-X.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kumar NV, Bernstein LR: Ten ERK-related proteins in three distinct classes associate with AP-1 proteins and/or AP-1 DNA. J Biol Chem. 2001, 276: 32362-32372. 10.1074/jbc.M103677200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Zhang H, Shi X, Hampong M, Blanis L, Pelech S: Stress-induced inhibition of ERK1 and ERK2 by direct interaction with p38 MAP kinase. J Biol Chem. 2001, 276: 6905-6908. 10.1074/jbc.C000917200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Efimova T, Broome A-M, Eckert RL: A regulatory role for p38-delta MAPK in keratinocyte differentiation: evidence for p38-delta-ERK1/2 complex formation. J Biol Chem. 2003, 278: 34277-34285. 10.1074/jbc.M302759200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Aguirre-Ghiso JA, Estrada Y, Liu D, Ossowski L: ERK(MAPK) activity as a determinant of tumor growth and dormancy; regulation by p38(SAPK). Cancer Res. 2003, 63: 1684-1695.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Sanz-Moreno V, Casar B, Crespo P: p38α isoform Mxi2 binds to extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1 and 2 mitogen-activated protein kinase and regulates its nuclear activity by sustaining its phosphorylation levels. Mol Cell Biol. 2003, 23: 3079-3090. 10.1128/MCB.23.9.3079-3090.2003.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- McCaw BJ, Chow SY, Wong ES, Tan KL, Guo H, Guy GR: Identification and characterization of mErk5-T, a novel Erk5/Bmk1 splice variant. Gene. 2005, 345: 183-190. 10.1016/j.gene.2004.11.011.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Kallunki T, Deng T, Hibi M, Karin M: c-Jun can recruit JNK to phosphorylate dimerization partners via specific docking interactions. Cell. 1996, 87: 929-939. 10.1016/S0092-8674(00)81999-6.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Ohren JF, Chen H, Pavlovsky A, Whitehead C, Zhang E, Kuffa P, Yan C, McConnell P, Spessard C, Banotai C, et al: Structures of human MAP kinase kinase 1 (MEK1) and MEK2 describe novel noncompetitive kinase inhibition. Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2004, 11: 1192-1197. 10.1038/nsmb859.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Inouye K, Mizutani S, Koide H, Kaziro Y: Formation of the Ras dimer is essential for Raf-1 activation. J Biol Chem. 2000, 275: 3737-3740. 10.1074/jbc.275.6.3737.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Weber CK, Slupsky JR, Kalmes HA, Rapp UR: Active Ras induces heterodimerization of cRaf and BRaf. Cancer Res. 2001, 61: 3595-3598.PubMedGoogle Scholar
- Garnett MJ, Rana S, Paterson H, Barford D, Marais R: Wild-type and mutant B-RAF activate C-RAF through distinct mechanisms involving heterodimerization. Mol Cell. 2005, 20: 963-969. 10.1016/j.molcel.2005.10.022.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Rushworth LK, Hindley AD, O'Neill E, Kolch W: Regulation and role of Raf-1/B-Raf heterodimerization. Mol Cell Biol. 2006, 26: 2262-2272. 10.1128/MCB.26.6.2262-2272.2006.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Xing H, Kornfeld K, Muslin AJ: The protein kinase KSR interacts with 14-3-3 protein and Raf. Curr Biol. 1997, 7: 294-300. 10.1016/S0960-9822(06)00152-7.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Glantschnig H, Rodan GA, Reszka AA: Mapping of MST1 kinase sites of phosphorylation. Activation and autophosphorylation. J Biol Chem. 2002, 277: 42987-42996. 10.1074/jbc.M208538200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Praskova M, Khoklatchev A, Ortiz-Vega S, Avruch J: Regulation of the MST1 kinase by autophosphorylation, by the growth inhibitory proteins, RASSF1 and NORE1, and by Ras. Biochem J. 2004, 381: 453-462. 10.1042/BJ20040025.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- O'Neill E, Rushworth L, Baccarini M, Kolch W: Role of the kinase MST2 in suppression of apoptosis by the proto-oncogene product Raf-1. Science. 2004, 306: 2267-2270. 10.1126/science.1103233.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Hao W, Takano T, Guillemette J, Papillon J, Ren G, Cybulsky AV: Induction of apoptosis by the Ste20-like kinase SLK, a germinal center kinase that activates apoptosis signal-regulating kinase and p38. J Biol Chem. 2006, 281: 3075-3084. 10.1074/jbc.M511744200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Yustein JT, Xia L, Kahlenburg JM, Robinson D, Templeton D, Kung HJ: Comparative studies of a new subfamily of human Ste20-like kinases: homodimerization, subcellular localization, and selective activation of MKK3 and p38. Oncogene. 2003, 22: 6129-6141. 10.1038/sj.onc.1206605.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Song JJ, Lee YJ: Role of the ASK1-SEK1-JNK1-HIPK1 signaling Daxx trafficking and ASK1 oligomerization. J Biol Chem. 2003, 278: 47245-47252. 10.1074/jbc.M213201200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Cheng J, Yu L, Zhang D, Huang Q, Spencer D, Su B: Dimerization through the catalytic domain is essential for MEKK2 activation. J Biol Chem. 2005, 280: 13477-13482. 10.1074/jbc.M414258200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Abell AN, Johnson GL: MEKK4 is an effector of the embryonic TRAF4 for JNK activation. J Biol Chem. 2005, 280: 35793-35796. 10.1074/jbc.C500260200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Nihalani D, Merritt S, Holzman LB: Identification of structural and functional domains in mixed lineage kinase dual leucine zipper-bearing kinase required for complex formation and stress-activated protein kinase activation. J Biol Chem. 2000, 275: 7273-7279. 10.1074/jbc.275.10.7273.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Hebert SS, Daviau A, Grondin G, Latreille M, Aubin RA, Blouin R: The mixed lineage kinase DLK is oligomerized by tissue transglutaminase during apoptosis. J Biol Chem. 2000, 275: 32482-32490. 10.1074/jbc.M006528200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Leung IW, Lassam N: The kinase activation loop is the key to mixed lineage kinase-3 activation via both autophosphorylation and hematopoietic progenitor kinase 1 phosphorylation. J Biol Chem. 2001, 276: 1961-1967. 10.1074/jbc.M004092200.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Ikeda A, Masaki M, Kozutsumi Y, Oka S, Kawasaki T: Identification and characterization of functional domains in a mixed lineage kinase LZK. FEBS Lett. 2001, 488: 190-195. 10.1016/S0014-5793(00)02432-7.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Nahta R, Yuan LX, Zhang B, Kobayashi R, Esteva FJ: Insulin-like growth factor-I receptor/human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 heterodimerization contributes to trastuzumab resistance of breast cancer cells. Cancer Res. 2005, 65: 11118-11128. 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-04-3841.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
- Saito Y, Haendeler J, Hojo Y, Yamamoto K, Berk BC: Receptor heterodimerization: essential mechanism for platelet-derived growth factor-induced epidermal growth factor receptor transactivation. Mol Cell Biol. 2001, 21: 6387-6394. 10.1128/MCB.21.19.6387-6394.2001.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar