Mitogen-activated protein kinase, or MAPK pathway, activates three sequential kinases to regulate cellular responses such as proliferation, differentiation, survival, and apoptosis. The canonical MAPK pathway starts with a mitogen or growth factor binding to an RTK. The activated RTKs stimulate Ras, which recruits Raf or MAP3 Kinase (MAPKKK), the first kinase of the MAPK signaling cascade. Raf further phosphorylates and activates MEK or MAP2 Kinases (MAPKK), which in turn phosphorylates MAP Kinase, the final kinase of the cascade. Activated MAP Kinase now phosphorylates downstream substrates, including transcription factors, and facilitates gene expression changes to elicit an appropriate cellular response. The three types of MAPK pathways in mammals are:
The classical ERK pathway is activated when growth factors or mitogens bind and activate the RTKs, GPCRs, or integrins to initiate cell growth and differentiation. Environmental stresses such as radiation, oxidative stress, and DNA damage induce JNK family activation and cause cell death and inflammation. Alternately, P38 pathways are also activated in response to environmental stresses and cytokines, promoting inflammation, cell death, cell differentiation, and cell cycle regulation.
Eukaryotes use all three MAP Kinase modules and elicit different responses in the cell. With the help of scaffolds, they often share the same kinases and activate different effector proteins without crosstalk between the signaling pathways. Scaffold proteins channel the incoming signal to the correct MAPK module, ensuring signal specificity, thereby eliciting an appropriate response. The scaffold protein also increases the signal transduction by localizing or orienting the protein complexes near their substrates. For example, once the Ras is activated, the kinase suppressor of Ras or the KSR protein recruits MEK1/2 to the plasma membrane and places it next to the Raf, activating downstream proteins ERK1 and ERK2. KSR is a pathway-specific scaffold protein that avoids cross-talk between parallelly occurring MAPK modules. The combined effect of localization of adaptor proteins, substrate, and associated kinases enhances signal relay. Activated MAP kinase phosphorylates its cytoplasmic substrates or is transported to the nucleus to activate transcription factors such as c-Jun and c-Fos, eventually triggering the cyclin D1 gene and promoting the cell cycle progression.
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