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Plant Physiol. 2004 Oct;136(2):3276-83. Epub 2004 Sep 24.

Heavy metal stress. Activation of distinct mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways by copper and cadmium.

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  • 1Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology, Austrian Academy of Sciences and Institute of Microbiology and Genetics, University of Vienna, Vienna Biocenter, A-1030 Vienna, Austria.


Excessive amounts of heavy metals adversely affect plant growth and development. Whereas some regions naturally contain high levels of heavy metals, anthropogenic release of heavy metals into the environment continuously increases soil contamination. The presence of elevated levels of heavy metal ions triggers a wide range of cellular responses including changes in gene expression and synthesis of metal-detoxifying peptides. To elucidate signal transduction events leading to the cellular response to heavy metal stress we analyzed protein phosphorylation induced by elevated levels of copper and cadmium ions as examples for heavy metals with different physiochemical properties and functions. Exposure of alfalfa (Medicago sativa) seedlings to excess copper or cadmium ions activated four distinct mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs): SIMK, MMK2, MMK3, and SAMK. Comparison of the kinetics of MAPK activation revealed that SIMK, MMK2, MMK3, and SAMK are very rapidly activated by copper ions, while cadmium ions induced delayed MAPK activation. In protoplasts, the MAPK kinase SIMKK specifically mediated activation of SIMK and SAMK but not of MMK2 and MMK3. Moreover, SIMKK only conveyed MAPK activation by CuCl(2) but not by CdCl(2). These results suggest that plants respond to heavy metal stress by induction of several distinct MAPK pathways and that excess amounts of copper and cadmium ions induce different cellular signaling mechanisms in roots.

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