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Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2003 Sep;285(3):C652-61.

Loss of active MEK1-ERK1/2 restores epithelial phenotype and morphogenesis in transdifferentiated MDCK cells.

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  • 1Department of Physiology, University of Innsbruck, Fritz-Pregl-Strasse 3, A-6010 Innsbruck, Austria.

Erratum in

  • Am J Physiol Cell Physiol. 2003 Dec;285(6):C1561.


Constitutive activation of the MAPK/ERK kinase (MEK)1-ERK2 signaling module in Madin-Darby canine kidney (MDCK)-C7 cells disrupts their ability to form cyst-like structures in collagen gels and induces an invasive, myofibroblast-like phenotype. However, the reversibility of these cellular events, as well as the relative role of both MEK isoforms (MEK1 and MEK2) and both ERK isoforms (ERK1 and ERK2) during these processes, has not yet been investigated. We now report that loss of constitutively active MEK1 (caMEK1) and, thus, loss of active ERK1/2 in C7caMEK1 cells is associated with increased MEK2 protein expression, reexpression of ERK1 protein, and epithelial redifferentiation of these cells. The morphological changes toward an epithelial phenotype in these revertant cell lines (C7rev4, C7rev5, C7rev7) are reflected by the upregulation of epithelial marker proteins, such as E-cadherin, beta-catenin, and cytokeratin, by the loss of alpha-smooth muscle actin expression, and by the ability of these epithelial revertants to form well-organized spherical cysts when grown in three-dimensional collagen gels. Further evidence for a role of the MEK1-ERK1/2 module in epithelial-mesenchymal transition was obtained from the analysis of two novel, spontaneously transdifferentiated MDCK-C7 cell clones (C7e1 and C7e2 cells). In these clones, increased MEK1/2-ERK1/2 phosphorylation, reduced MEK2 protein expression, and loss of ERK1 protein expression is associated with phenotypic alterations similar to those observed in transdifferentiated C7caMEK1 cells. C7e1 cells at least partially regained some of their epithelial characteristics at higher passages. In contrast, C7e2 cells maintained a transdifferentiated phenotype at high passage, were unable to generate cyst-like epithelial structures, and retained invasive properties when grown on a three-dimensional collagen matrix. We conclude that in renal epithelial MDCK-C7 cells, stable epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) is associated with loss of ERK1 protein expression, reduced MEK2 protein expression, and increased basal ERK2 phosphorylation. In contrast, loss of active MEK1-ERK1/2 results in increased MEK2 protein expression and reexpression of ERK1 protein, concomitant with the restoration of epithelial phenotype and the ability to form cystic structures.

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