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Mol Biol Cell. Feb 2000; 11(2): 735–746.

Association of Insulin Receptor Substrate Proteins with Bcl-2 and Their Effects on Its Phosphorylation and Antiapoptotic Function

Martin Raff, Monitoring Editor


Insulin receptor substrate (IRS) proteins are docking proteins that couple growth factor receptors to various effector molecules, including phosphoinositide-3 kinase, Grb-2, Syp, and Nck. Here we show that IRS-1 associates with the loop domain of Bcl-2 and synergistically up-regulates antiapoptotic function of Bcl-2. IRS-2 but not IRS-3 binds to Bcl-2, and IRS-1 associates with Bcl-XL but not with Bax or Bik. Overexpression of IRS-1 suppresses phosphorylation of Bcl-2 induced by stimulation with insulin, and the hypophosphorylation may lead to its enhanced antiapoptotic activity. The binding site for Bcl-2 is located on the carboxyl half-domain of IRS-1. IRS-3, which lacks the corresponding region, dominant-negatively abrogates the survival effects of IRS-1 and Bcl-2. For the antiapoptotic activity of IRS-1, binding to Bcl-2 is more critical than activating phosphoinositide-3 kinase. Our results indicate that IRS proteins transmit signals from the insulin receptor to Bcl-2, thus regulating cell survival probably through regulating phosphorylation of Bcl-2.


Apoptosis is a form of programmed cell death, characterized by chromatin condensation, cytoplasmic blebbing, and DNA fragmentation. During development, programmed cell death plays critical roles in sculpting parts of body, deleting unwanted structures and misplaced, nonfunctional, or harmful cells in animal tissues (Jacobson et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle). Depletion of growth factors is one of the common causes of apoptosis, which probably plays a critical role in controlling cell number and eliminating misplaced cells. Growth factor receptors including receptor tyrosine kinases (RTKs) are considered to generate cell growth signals and cell survival signals to support continuous growth of cells. Although the precise mechanisms of how RTKs generate antiapoptotic signals are not well understood, ligand stimulation of RTKs leads to activation of intracellular signaling cascades including the Ras-MAPK pathway and the phosphoinositide-3 kinase (PI3K) pathway that are considered to possess antiapoptotic activity (Datta et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Klesse and Parada, 1998 blue right-pointing triangle; Kurada and White, 1998 blue right-pointing triangle; Walker et al., 1998 blue right-pointing triangle).

In addition to them, several recent studies have shown that RTKs support cell survival by regulating the function of the Bcl-2 family proteins via phosphorylation. There are two types of the Bcl-2 family proteins, namely antiapoptotic members such as Bcl-2 (Cleary et al., 1986 blue right-pointing triangle) and Bcl-XL (Boise et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle) and proapoptotic members, including Bad (Yang et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle), Bax (Oltvai et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle), and Bik (Boyd et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle). Survival of cells was considered to be regulated by a ratio of expressed amounts of antiapoptotic Bcl-2 family proteins to those of proapoptotic member proteins (Oltvai et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle). Furthermore, the function of Bcl-2 family proteins could be regulated by phosphorylation. For example, activation of RTKs leads to phosphorylation of Bad, a proapoptotic Bcl-2 family member, which results in suppression of apoptosis. The protein kinases that phosphorylate Bad are reported to be c-Akt (Datta et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; del Peso et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle) and protein kinase A (Harada et al., 1999 blue right-pointing triangle). Furthermore, several growth factors induce serine/threonine phosphorylation of Bcl-2 (Ito et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle), which modifies the antiapoptotic effects of Bcl-2. Paradoxically, however, because dephosphorylation rather than phosphorylation up-regulates the antiapoptotic activity of Bcl-2 (Haldar et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle; Chang et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Maundrell et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle), growth factors that induce phosphorylation of Bcl-2 would be expected to cause apoptotic cell death. Taken together, we hypothesize that there should be a mechanism that regulates phosphorylation of Bcl-2 when RTKs and their signaling pathways are activated. Therefore, we searched for regulatory molecules of Bcl-2 that are present in the signaling cascades of RTKs.


Antibodies and Cell Culture

For immunoblotting, immunoprecipitation, and immunostaining, we used anti-Bcl-2 antibodies, clones 124 (for immunoblotting and immunostaining; Dako, Glostrup, Denmark), N-19 (for immunoprecipitation and immunoblotting), and C100 (for immunoprecipitation and immunoblotting; Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Santa Cruz, CA), anti-IRS-1 antibodies C-20 (for immunoblotting; Santa Cruz) and J36 (for immunoprecipitation; Yamamoto-Honda et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle), anti-IRS-2 antibody (Upstate Biotechnology, Lake Placid, NY), anti-insulin receptor β chain antibody C-19 (Santa Cruz), anti-phosphotyrosine antibody 4G10 (Upstate Biotechnology), and anti-FLAG M2 (Eastman Kodak, Rochester, NY), anti-myc 9E10 (Babco, Richmond, CA), and anti-hemagglutinin (HA) 12CA5 (Boehringer Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany) antibodies. IM-9 cells were cultured in RPMI 1640 medium containing 10% FCS. Ba/F3 cells were maintained in RPMI 1640 medium containing 10% FCS and 0.25 ng/ml mouse interleukin 3 (IL-3). Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells were grown in Ham's F-12 medium containing 10% FCS. Human embryonic kidney 293 cells were maintained in Dulbecco's modified Eagle's medium containing 10% FCS.

Plasmid Construction

To construct the C-1 deletion mutant of murine IRS-1, the XmaI–Eco81I fragment corresponding to amino acids 869-1201 was excised, and the remaining cDNA was blunted and religated. The deletion mutants of IRS-1, C-2 (which encodes aa 1–741), C-3 (aa 1–573), and C-4 (aa 1–421), were constructed by PCR and epitope tagged with the FLAG sequence at the carboxyl terminus. All constructs of the mutants were verified by direct sequencing and subcloned into an expression vector, pUC-CAGGS (Ueno et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle). The ΔBH4 (lacking aa 10–31), the Δloop (lacking aa 35–79), the ΔBH3 (lacking aa 100–118), and the ΔBH1-BH2 (lacking aa 118–239) mutants of human Bcl-2 were constructed by PCR or the site-directed mutagenesis and subcloned into the pcDNA3myc vector (tagged with the myc sequence). All these deletion mutants of Bcl-2 lack the transmembrane domain (aa 219–239). Rat IRS-3 and human Bax and Bik genes were isolated by reverse transcription-PCR of total RNA isolated from rat liver and human peripheral lymphocyte and sequenced by an autosequencer (Applied Biosystems, Foster City, CA). Rat IRS-3 cDNA was tagged with the FLAG sequence (DYLDDDDL) or the HA (YPYDVPDYA) sequence at the 3′ terminus. Human Bcl-2, Bcl-XL, Bax, and Bik genes were subcloned into the pcDNA3myc vector and tagged with the myc sequence (EQKLISEEDLN). Retrovirus vector pSRαSVtkneo was used to transfect cDNAs into Ba/F3 cells, as reported previously (Ueno et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle). To coexpress two cDNAs in Ba/F3 cells, we used an internal ribosomal entry site (IRES) that was subcloned between two cDNAs in pSRαSVtkneo. To construct the loop fragment tagged with the FLAG peptide (LF), the cDNA of human Bcl-2 corresponding to the region aa 31–75 was amplified and tagged with the FLAG sequence by PCR. The construct was subcloned into an expression vector, pMX-puro vector (Onishi et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle). All constructs generated by PCR were verified by sequencing.

Transfection, Immunoprecipitation, Immunoblotting, and Kinase Assay

Transfection into 293 cells was carried out by the calcium phosphate method as described previously (Ueno et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle). To establish CHO-IR/IRS-1/Bcl-2 cells, Bcl-2/pSSRα-bsr (carrying the blasticidin-resistant gene) was introduced into the CHO-IR/IRS-1 cells (Yonezawa et al., 1994 blue right-pointing triangle), and stable clones were selected in the presence of 5 μg/ml blasticidin (Funakoshi, Tokyo, Japan) as reported (Ueno et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle). Immunoprecipitation and immunoblotting were performed as described (Ueno et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle). To detect serine/threonine phosphorylation of Bcl-2 by insulin stimulation, cells were labeled with [32P]orthophosphoric acid as described previously (Tobe et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle). Then cells were stimulated with insulin (100 nM) at 37°C for 5 min, lysed, and immunoprecipitated with anti-Bcl-2 antibody. The kinase activity of PI3K was measured as described previously (Yamamoto-Honda et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle).


Cells were fixed in 3.7% formaldehyde in PBS for 10 min, permeabilized with 0.1% Nonidet P-40 in PBS for 10 min, and blocked in PBS containing 5% normal goat serum (Life Technologies, Gaithersburg, MD) and 1 mg of BSA fraction V (Sigma, St. Louis, MO)/ml for 1 h. Then the cells were incubated with indicated antibodies for 1 h, followed by incubation with FITC- or Texas Red-conjugated goat secondary antibodies for 1 h. The cells were visualized under a Bio-Rad (Hercules, CA) MRC 1024 confocal microscope.

Survival Assay

For flow cytometry, cells were fixed with 70% ethanol for 5 h at −20°C, treated with 100 μg/ml RNase A at 37°C for 30 min, and stained with 50 μg/ml propidium iodide for 30 min. Then cells were subjected to fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) analysis by a FACSort (Becton Dickinson, Mountain View, CA). The survival ratio was calculated as the rate of a number of viable cells to the total number of viable and apoptotic cells, which were counted after trypan blue staining.


Association between IRS Proteins and the Bcl-2 Family Proteins

We first examined the tyrosine-phosphorylated proteins associated with Bcl-2 when RTKs are activated by ligand binding. We used IM-9 cells for these experiments, because IM-9 cells, derived from B lymphocytes, express relatively large amounts of insulin receptors (Van et al., 1976 blue right-pointing triangle) and Bcl-2 (our unpublished results). When cells were stimulated with insulin, an ~180-kDa tyrosine-phosphorylated protein was coprecipitated with Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure1A).1A). Because the ~180-kDa proteins tyrosine phosphorylated with insulin stimulation are known to be IRS-1 (Sun et al., 1991 blue right-pointing triangle) and IRS-2 (Sun et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle), and IM-9 cells express more IRS-1 than IRS-2 (our unpublished results), we assumed that this phosphoprotein could be IRS-1. IRS proteins are substrates for many growth factors such as insulin (Sun et al., 1991 blue right-pointing triangle), insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) (Chuang et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle; Myers et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle), IL-4 (Keegan et al., 1994 blue right-pointing triangle), IL-9 (Vin et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle), IL-13 (Welham et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle), and growth hormone (GH) (Souza et al., 1994 blue right-pointing triangle; Ridderstrale et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle). So far, four IRS proteins, namely IRS-1, IRS-2, IRS-3 (Lavan et al., 1997b blue right-pointing triangle), and IRS-4 (Lavan et al., 1997a blue right-pointing triangle), have been identified. Moreover, GAB1 (Holgado-Madruga et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle) and GAB2 (Gu et al., 1998 blue right-pointing triangle) genes have been cloned that are structurally related to IRS proteins. IRS-1, IRS-2, and IRS-4 are structurally closely related to each other (Lavan et al., 1997a blue right-pointing triangle). However, IRS-3 lacks the region corresponding to the carboxyl half-domain of IRS-1 (Lavan et al., 1997b blue right-pointing triangle). As shown in Figure Figure1B,1B, IRS-1 and Bcl-2 are constitutively associated in IM-9 cells, and such association was not affected by insulin stimulation. As reported previously, phosphorylated Bcl-2 can be detected as a shifted band by using anti-Bcl-2 monoclonal antibody C100 (Figure (Figure1,1, A and B) (Scatena et al., 1998 blue right-pointing triangle). In Figure Figure1B,1B, we found that IRS-1 coprecipitated nonphosphorylated but not phosphorylated Bcl-2, indicating that IRS-1 does not bind to phosphorylated Bcl-2. The reason will be discussed later. By cotransfection, IRS-2 also associated with Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure1C).1C). The association was also observed in the lysates from murine hepatocytes (Figure (Figure1D),1D), indicating that not only transfected but also endogenous IRS-1/IRS-2 and Bcl-2 associate with each other. IRS-1 also bound to Bcl-XL but not to Bax or Bik (Figure (Figure2A).2A). Interestingly, Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL are antiapoptotic members, and Bax and Bik are proapoptotic members of the Bcl-2 family proteins. To determine the domains of Bcl-2 and IRS-1 that bind with each other, we used deletion mutants of Bcl-2 and IRS-1 (Figure (Figure2,2, B and C). As shown in Figure Figure2B,2B, only the Δloop mutant of Bcl-2 failed to bind to IRS-1, indicating that IRS-1 binds to the loop domain of Bcl-2. This result is reasonable because Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL possess the loop domain, whereas Bax and Bik do not. On the other hand, using deletion mutants of IRS-1, we found that Bcl-2 binds to the carboxyl half-region of IRS-1 (amino acids 574-1233; Figure Figure2C).2C). IRS-3 that lacks the corresponding domain of IRS-1 could not associate with Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure2C).2C).

Figure 1
Association among IRS-1, IRS-2, and Bcl-2. (A) A 180-kDa tyrosine phosphoprotein associated with Bcl-2 in insulin-stimulated IM-9 cells. IM-9 cells stimulated with insulin (100 nM) at 37°C for 5 min were lysed, immunoprecipitated (IP) with C100 ...
Figure 2
(A) IRS-1 associates with Bcl-2 and Bcl-XL but not with Bax or Bik. Human Bcl-2, Bcl-XL, Bax, and Bik in the pcDNA3myc vector were cotransfected with IRS-1/pRcCMV in 293 cells. Then lysates were immunoprecipitated (IP) and immunoblotted (WB) with the ...

Colocalization of IRS-1 and Bcl-2

It has been reported that IRS-1 localizes to the cytoplasm and that stimulation with insulin induces its association with the insulin receptor through its phosphotyrosine binding domain (Craparo et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle; Eck et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle), whereas Bcl-2 localizes to the nuclear envelope, the endoplasmic reticulum, and the outer mitochondrial membrane (Lithgow et al., 1994 blue right-pointing triangle). Because IRS-1 and Bcl-2 associated with each other (Figure (Figure1B),1B), we examined the subcellular localization of both molecules and the effects of growth factor stimulation. To this end, we established a stable transfectant of CHO cells expressing the insulin receptor, IRS-1, and Bcl-2 (CHO-IR/IRS-1/Bcl-2 cells). By immunostaining with anti-IRS-1 and anti-Bcl-2 antibodies, IRS-1 and Bcl-2 were revealed to colocalize at the perinuclear region (Figure (Figure3,3, A–F). Similar results were obtained when IRS-1 and Bcl-2 were cotransfected into NIH3T3 and COS7 cells (our unpublished results). When these cell lines were stimulated with insulin, however, there was no alteration in the subcellular localization of either molecule. The similar results were obtained when these cells were stimulated with insulin for a shorter or longer period (from 1 min up to 12 h) at a lower temperature (up to 4°C). Consistent with our data, a previous report regarding the subcellular localization of IRS-1 indicated that, after insulin stimulation, IRS-1 did not translocate to the plasma membrane and was tyrosine phosphorylated at the cytoplasm by internalization of activated insulin receptors (Kublaoui et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle).

Figure 3
Colocalization of IRS-1 and Bcl-2. A part of IRS-1 colocalizes with Bcl-2, and insulin stimulation of cells does not affect localization of IRS-1 and Bcl-2. CHO-IR/IRS-1/Bcl-2 cells were treated with (D–F) or without (A–C) insulin (100 ...

IRS-1 Enhances Antiapoptotic Activity of Bcl-2

From the observations described above, we presumed that IRS proteins regulate the apoptosis of cells by modulating the Bcl-2 function. It has been shown that overexpression of Bcl-2 suppresses apoptosis of Ba/F3 cells when deprived of IL-3. To analyze the survival effects of IRS proteins and their regulatory mechanisms for Bcl-2, we examined whether they could suppress apoptosis of cells induced by IL-3 withdrawal. Ba/F3 cells express endogenous IRS-2 and Bcl-2; however, the expression levels of them are relatively low. Therefore, we established stable transfectants of IRS-1, IRS-2, IRS-3, and Bcl-2, in which IRS-1 and IRS-2 but not IRS-3 associate with Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure4A).4A). We confirmed that the Ba/F3-derived cell lines used in these experiments express comparable levels of insulin receptors, and when treated with insulin, the levels of autophosphorylation of the insulin receptor were also approximately equal (Figure (Figure4B).4B). Interestingly, IRS-1 and IRS-2 could suppress apoptosis, but IRS-3 could not (Figures (Figures4C4C and and5A).5A). Because the results of the survival rate, calculated as described in MATERIALS AND METHODS, correlated well with those of the PI staining and the FACS analysis of cells (Figures (Figures4C4C and and5A),5A), we used the survival rate as an antiapoptotic level in the subsequent experiments. In the presence of a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, genistein (50 μg/ml), or in the absence of FCS, IRS-1 and IRS-2 could not suppress the apoptosis of cells (our unpublished results). We thus deduced that the IRS-1-mediated signals, which were activated by growth factors such as insulin and IGF-1 included in FCS, could be required to exert survival effects. In fact, the FCS we used in this study contained 15 nM insulin quantified by the immunoradiometric assay (IRMA). Moreover, even if the FCS concentration was reduced to 0.5%, we obtained similar results when insulin was added to the medium (10 nM; our unpublished results). Because IRS-1 and IRS-2 can interact with the PI3K-Akt pathway, it is reasonable to assume that they suppress apoptosis by activating the PI3K-Akt pathway. However, IRS-3 also has binding sites for the p85 subunit of PI3K (Lavan et al., 1997b blue right-pointing triangle) and can activate PI3K (Figure (Figure5B)5B) but cannot suppress apoptosis (Figures (Figures4C4C and and5A).5A). On the other hand, a quadruple tyrosine-phenylalanine mutant of IRS-1, 4F-IRS-1, which lacks all the major binding sites for p85 (Tyr-460, Tyr-608, Tyr-939, and Tyr-987) and significantly loses the ability to activate PI3K (Yamamoto-Honda et al., 1996 blue right-pointing triangle; Figure Figure5B),5B), can bind to Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure4A)4A) and suppressed apoptosis at a level similar to that of IRS-1 (Figure (Figure5A).5A). We next examined whether the series of truncated mutants of IRS-1 could suppress apoptosis and found that C-1 and C-2 could suppress apoptosis but C-3 and C-4 mutants could not (Figure (Figure5C).5C). Because C-1 and C-2 can bind to Bcl-2, whereas C-3 and C-4 cannot (Figure (Figure2C),2C), these findings suggest that, to exert the survival effect of IRS-1, association with Bcl-2 is more important than association with the PI3K pathway. The next issue to be addressed is whether IRS-3 is merely unable to suppress apoptosis or whether it interferes with the antiapoptotic effect of the IRS-1/2-Bcl-2 pathway. To test this, we established three Ba/F3 lines coexpressing IRS-1/Bcl-2, IRS-3/Bcl-2, and IRS-1/IRS-3. Although the cells coexpressing IRS-1/Bcl-2 showed an enhanced survival rate compared with the cells expressing either one of them alone, the cells coexpressing IRS-3 and Bcl-2 underwent apoptosis as rapidly as the mock cells, and the cells coexpressing IRS-1 and IRS-3 showed a significantly reduced survival rate compared with the cells expressing IRS-1 alone (Figure (Figure6A),6A), indicating that IRS-3 abrogates the survival effects of IRS-1 and Bcl-2. Consistent with this, tyrosine phosphorylation of endogenous IRS-2 was severely impaired in the cells expressing IRS-3 when stimulated with insulin (Figure (Figure6B).6B). This result was confirmed in the cells coexpressing IRS-1 and IRS-3 by the finding that phosphorylation of IRS-1 was significantly suppressed compared with that in the cells expressing IRS-1 alone (our unpublished results).

Figure 4
IRS-1 and IRS-2 but not IRS-3 suppress apoptotic cell death. (A) IRS-1, 4F-IRS-1 (4F), and IRS-2 but not IRS-3 associate with Bcl-2 in Ba/F3 cells. Lysates from the indicated cell lines were immunoprecipitated and immunoblotted with the indicated antibodies. ...
Figure 5
(A) IRS-1 and IRS-2 but not IRS-3 suppress apoptosis of Ba/F3 cells deprived of IL-3. Stable transfectants of IRS-1, IRS-2, IRS-3, 4F-IRS-1, Bcl-2, and mock cells were deprived of IL-3 and cultured in RPMI 1640 medium containing 5% FCS. FCS used ...
Figure 6
(A) Survival rate of double stable transfectants of Ba/F3 cells established by using retrovirus vectors carrying IRS-1-IRES-Bcl-2, IRS-3-HA-IRES-Bcl-2,or IRS-1-IRES-IRS-3, compared with those of Bcl-2, IRS-1, and Ba/F3 cells. (B) Stable transfectants ...

To ascertain the importance of association between IRS-1 and Bcl-2 in survival of cells, we constructed a deletion mutant of Bcl-2, which consists of the loop domain of human Bcl-2 (aa 31–75) epitope tagged with the FLAG peptide (LF). We expect that the LF peptide dominant-negatively blocks signals from IRS-1 to Bcl-2 and thus abolishes the antiapoptotic effects of IRS-1 and Bcl-2. We cotransfected the construct into mock, Bcl-2, and IRS-1 cells and examined the effect on the survival of cells. As expected, we found in the experiment that the cells transfected with the LF peptide become sensitive to apoptosis induced by IL-3 depletion under the same conditions of Figure Figure6A6A (Figure (Figure66C).

IRS-1 Suppresses Phosphorylation of Bcl-2 Induced by Insulin

To investigate the mechanisms involved in the regulation of the antiapoptotic function of Bcl-2 by IRS proteins, we examined their effects on phosphorylation of Bcl-2, because serine/threonine phosphorylation sites are present within the loop domain of Bcl-2 (Chang et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Maundrell et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle). To confirm that the insulin treatment induces phosphorylation of Bcl-2, and the phosphorylation site is located within the loop domain, we labeled Ba/F3 cells expressing Bcl-2 and Δloop-Bcl-2 with [32P]orthophosphoric acid and stimulated with insulin. The deletion mutant of Bcl-2 that lacks the loop domain (Δloop-Bcl-2) was not phosphorylated by insulin treatment (Figure (Figure7A),7A), indicating that the phosphorylation sites of Bcl-2 by insulin were located within the loop domain. Because the expression level of endogenous Bcl-2 in Ba/F3 cells is relatively low, we could not clearly compare the phosphorylation levels induced by insulin treatment (our unpublished results). Therefore, we used double transfectants of Ba/F3, IRS-1/Bcl-2, IRS-3/Bcl-2, and Bcl-2 cells that express approximately the same amount of Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure7B).7B). Insulin treatment of these cells induced phosphorylation of Bcl-2, but coexpression of IRS-1 significantly suppressed insulin-induced phosphorylation, whereas phosphorylation of Bcl-2 in IRS-3/Bcl-2 cells was rather enhanced compared with that in Bcl-2 cells (Figure (Figure7B).7B). Because the phosphorylation levels of Bcl-2 correlate well with the results of Figure Figure6A,6A, they support our hypothesis that IRS-3 blocks activation of the IRS-1/2-Bcl-2 pathway in a dominant-negative manner and thus abrogates the survival effects of Bcl-2. To confirm the importance of the phosphorylation level of Bcl-2 in the regulation of apoptosis by IRS proteins, we next generated stable transfectants that coexpress the Δloop mutant with mock, IRS-1, and IRS-3 cells. The Δloop mutant lacks the phosphorylation site(s) by insulin stimulation (Figure (Figure7A),7A), and possesses an enhanced ability to inhibit apoptosis compared with the full-length protein (Chang et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Maundrell et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle). As expected, IRS-3 cells coexpressing the Δloop mutant became resistant to apoptosis. This result supports our hypothesis that the dominant-negative effect of IRS-3 is exerted through up-regulating phosphorylation of Bcl-2. In the Figure Figure8,8, we present our hypothesis on the mechanism of how IRS proteins regulate survival of cells through controlling phosphorylation of Bcl-2. We could not obtain data as to whether the association between IRS-1 and Bcl-2 is direct; therefore, it is possible that internal molecule(s) exist between them.

Figure 7
Effects of IRS proteins on phosphorylation of Bcl-2. (A) Insulin induces phosphorylation of Bcl-2 but not the Δloop mutant of Bcl-2. Left panel, total cell lysates from Bcl-2 and Δloop cells were subjected to immunoblotting with anti-Bcl-2 ...
Figure 8
Schematic representation of our proposed model for the role of association between IRS-1 and Bcl-2 (see DISCUSSION). The pathways activated by unknown mechanisms are indicated by dotted lines.


In this study, we searched for regulatory molecules of Bcl-2 in the signaling pathway of the insulin receptor and found that IRS-1 binds to the loop domain of Bcl-2. The association between IRS-1 and Bcl-2 was observed regardless of insulin stimulation (Figure (Figure1B).1B). However, IRS-1 could not coprecipitate phosphorylated Bcl-2, as shown in Figure Figure1B.1B. We can raise two possibilities to explain these data. First, when phosphorylated, Bcl-2 dissociates from IRS-1. Second, a part of Bcl-2 not bound to IRS-1 is mainly phosphorylated with insulin treatment, whereas the rest of Bcl-2 constitutively associated with IRS-1 is not phosphorylated. Because nonphosphorylated Bcl-2 coprecipitated with IRS-1 and IRS-1 coprecipitated with Bcl-2 did not decrease with insulin stimulation (Figure (Figure1B),1B), we concluded that the latter possibility is more probable. Constitutive association between IRS-1 and Bcl-2 does not conflict with previous data as described in RESULTS. Kublaoui et al. (1995) blue right-pointing triangle reported that the distribution of IRS-1 is 80% cytosolic, 20% internal membrane associated, and essentially undetectable in the plasma membrane. After insulin stimulation, the phosphorylation state of IRS-1 in the internal membrane parallels that of the insulin receptor, but cytosolic IRS-1 phosphorylation remains constant. They hypothesized that insulin action is mediated by receptor internalization (Kublaoui et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle).

As shown in Figures Figures44 and and5,5, IRS-1 suppresses apoptotic cell death induced by growth factor withdrawal. The antiapoptotic effects of IRS-1 and Bcl-2 were synergistic (Figure (Figure6A).6A). Our results that IRS-3 and the deletion mutants of IRS-1 that fail to bind to Bcl-2 (Figure (Figure2C,2C, C-3 and C-4) cannot suppress apoptosis (Figure (Figure5C)5C) indicate that the association between IRS-1 and Bcl-2 is important to suppress apoptosis. The data of Figure Figure6C6C support our assumption. Because IRS-1 binds to the loop domain of Bcl-2 that is the region of serine/threonine phosphorylation, it was most likely that IRS proteins regulate the phosphorylation of Bcl-2. As expected, we found that overexpression of IRS-1 suppresses IRS proteins regulate the phosphorylation of Bcl-2. As expected, we found that overexpression of IRS-1 suppresses phosphorylation of Bcl-2 and that IRS-3 has an opposite effect (Figure (Figure77B).

The roles of phosphorylation of Bcl-2 are controversial. Many papers argue that dephosphorylation of Bcl-2 enhances the antiapoptotic function of Bcl-2 and phosphorylation inactivates its effects (Haldar et al., 1995 blue right-pointing triangle; Chang et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Maundrell et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle), although some reports contradict them (Ito et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Ruvolo et al., 1998 blue right-pointing triangle). Moreover, several recent studies insist that phosphorylation of Bcl-2 is a marker of M phase events (Ling et al., 1998 blue right-pointing triangle; Scatena et al., 1998 blue right-pointing triangle). However, the well-described phenomena that the loop deletion mutants of Bcl-2 possesses enhanced antiapoptotic activity than wild-type Bcl-2 (Chang et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Maundrell et al., 1997 blue right-pointing triangle; Srivastava et al., 1999 blue right-pointing triangle; Wang et al., 1999 blue right-pointing triangle) cannot be explained only by their hypothesis. From the standpoint of the first group, it can be interpreted as follows; the loop-deleted mutant is not phosphorylated; therefore, its antiapoptotic activity is up-regulated. Because phosphorylation of Bcl-2 and cell survival inversely correlate well (Figures (Figures4C,4C, C,5A,5A, and and7B)7B) and, by coexpressing the Δloop mutant, IRS-3 cells became resistant to apoptosis (Figure (Figure7C),7C), our results support the first hypothesis. However, it is possible that phosphorylation of Bcl-2 can be independently regulated by the signal transduction pathway downstream of growth factor receptors and by cell cycle.

We could not present data indicating the mechanism for how IRS-1 suppresses phosphorylation of Bcl-2. From Figure Figure7,7, A and B, we can conclude that 1) insulin stimulation result in serine/threonine phosphorylation of Bcl-2 at the loop domain; 2) the expression level of IRS-1 is in inverse proportion to phosphorylation of Bcl-2; and 3) IRS-3 opposes the effect of IRS-1. Because, without insulin and FCS, the survival effects of IRS-1 were not exerted, and the tyrosine kinase inhibitor genistein abolished its effects, we expect that the signals mediated through IRS-1 enhance the activity of serine/threonine phosphatases that dephosphorylate Bcl-2. Indeed, we have preliminary data that serine/threonine phosphatase inhibitors such as okadaic acid and cypermethline induce apoptosis of IRS-1/Bcl-2 cells at the same condition as Figure Figure6A6A (our unpublished results).

Several reports have already indicated that IRS-1 possesses an antiapoptotic activity. Growth factors such as insulin (Sun et al., 1991 blue right-pointing triangle), IGF (Chuang et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle; Myers et al., 1993 blue right-pointing triangle), and IL-4 (Keegan et al., 1994 blue right-pointing triangle) that use IRS-1 as a substrate for intracellular signaling are known to suppress apoptotic cell death (Barres et al., 1992 blue right-pointing triangle, 1993 blue right-pointing triangle; Parry et al., 1994 blue right-pointing triangle). Hepatocellular carcinoma cell lines overexpressing IRS-1 are resistant to apoptosis (Tanaka and Wands, 1996b blue right-pointing triangle). However, when an IRS-1 mutant lacking the carboxyl-terminal domain is introduced into such cell lines, the cell becomes sensitive to apoptosis (Tanaka and Wands, 1996a blue right-pointing triangle). These reports suggest that IRS-1 has a critical role in tumorigenesis, and the carboxyl-terminal domain is essential for these activities. From our data (Figures (Figures5C5C and and6A),6A), we can deduce that the carboxyl-terminal–truncated mutant of IRS-1 dominant-negatively blocks the IRS-1/Bcl-2 cascade to induce apoptosis of hepatocellular carcinoma cells.

Recently, CHICO, a Drosophila homologue of vertebrate IRS-1–4, was reported to play an essential role in the control of cell size and growth of flies (Bohni et al., 1999 blue right-pointing triangle). Moreover, a recent study demonstrated that knockout mice lacking both IRS-1 and IRS-2 (Irs-1−/−Irs-2−/−) are lethal. The heterozygotes (Irs-1−/−Irs-2+/−) mice showed severe growth retardation. They also showed that apoptosis of the islet β cells of IRS-2-deficient mice were increased. These data indicate that, in mammals, IRS proteins are critical for development and regulation of apoptosis (Withers et al., 1999 blue right-pointing triangle). Taken together, our findings that IRS proteins associate with Bcl-2 and modulate its antiapoptotic function might provide a clue to understand the mechanism of how growth factors regulate cell survival, apoptosis, and organ development.


We thank O.N. Witte for the expression vector pSRαSVtkneo. This work was supported in part by a grant-in-aid from the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture of Japan and from the Ministry of Health and Welfare of Japan.

Abbreviations used:

Chinese hamster ovary
fluorescence-activated cell sorting
insulin-like growth factor
internal ribosomal entry site
immunoradiometric assay
insulin receptor substrate
loop fragment
phosphoinositide-3 kinase
receptor tyrosine kinase


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