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Mol Biol Cell. 2007 Mar;18(3):1083-97. Epub 2007 Jan 10.

Cell contact-dependent regulation of epithelial-myofibroblast transition via the rho-rho kinase-phospho-myosin pathway.

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  • 1St. Michael's Hospital Research Institute, Toronto, ON, Canada M5B 1W8.


Epithelial-mesenchymal-myofibroblast transition (EMT), a key feature in organ fibrosis, is regulated by the state of intercellular contacts. Our recent studies have shown that an initial injury of cell-cell junctions is a prerequisite for transforming growth factor-beta1 (TGF-beta1)-induced transdifferentiation of kidney tubular cells into alpha-smooth muscle actin (SMA)-expressing myofibroblasts. Here we analyzed the underlying contact-dependent mechanisms. Ca(2+) removal-induced disruption of intercellular junctions provoked Rho/Rho kinase (ROK)-mediated myosin light chain (MLC) phosphorylation and Rho/ROK-dependent SMA promoter activation. Importantly, myosin-based contractility itself played a causal role, because the myosin ATPase inhibitor blebbistatin or a nonphosphorylatable, dominant negative MLC (DN-MLC) abolished the contact disruption-triggered SMA promoter activation, eliminated the synergy between contact injury and TGF-beta1, and suppressed SMA expression. To explore the responsible mechanisms, we investigated the localization of the main SMA-inducing transcription factors, serum response factor (SRF), and its coactivator myocardin-related transcription factor (MRTF). Contact injury enhanced nuclear accumulation of SRF and MRTF. These processes were inhibited by DN-Rho or DN-MLC. TGF-beta1 strongly facilitated nuclear accumulation of MRTF in cells with reduced contacts but not in intact epithelia. DN-myocardin abrogated the Ca(2+)-removal- +/- TGF-beta1-induced promoter activation. These studies define a new mechanism whereby cell contacts regulate epithelial-myofibroblast transition via Rho-ROK-phospho-MLC-dependent nuclear accumulation of MRTF.

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