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J Biochem Mol Toxicol. 2008 Feb;22(1):63-76. doi: 10.1002/jbt.20212.

Phosphorylation of Nrf2 in the transcription activation domain by casein kinase 2 (CK2) is critical for the nuclear translocation and transcription activation function of Nrf2 in IMR-32 neuroblastoma cells.

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Receptor Biology Laboratory, Toxicology and Molecular Biology Branch, Health Effects Laboratory Division, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Morgantown, WV 26505, USA.


The antioxidant-activated transcription factor nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (Nrf2) regulates the induction of cytoprotective genes against chemical toxicity and oxidative injuries. The role of phosphorylation in Nrf2 activation has been suggested but remains elusive. We report that phenolic antioxidant/pro-oxidant tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ) induced two forms of the Nrf2 protein in neuroblastoma cells (IMR-32), which migrated as distinctive bands on SDS-PAGE. In vitro treatment with lambda phosphatase eliminated the slower migrating form and increased the amount of the faster migrating form of Nrf2. In vivo (32)Pi-phosphorylation resulted in (32)Pi-labeling of the Nrf2 protein in the presence of tBHQ that can be dephosphorylated by lambda phosphotase, indicating that the slower migrating form is a phosphorylated Nrf2 protein and the faster form an unphosphorylated Nrf2. Unphosphorylated Nrf2 predominated in the cytoplasm, whereas the phosphorylated form preferentially localized in the nucleus. Nuclear Nrf2 can be dephosphorylated by lambda phosphotase in vitro and be converted to the faster migrating form, implicating phosphorylation of Nrf2 in the cytoplasmic-nuclear translocation of the protein. Deletional analyses from both the carboxyl- and amino-ends revealed the transcription activation (TA) domains Neh4 (Nrf2-ECH homology 4) and Neh5 (Nrf2-ECH homology 5) as a major region necessary for the phosphorylation. The TA domains are characterized by the presence of multiple phosphorylation sites of casein kinase 2 (CK2). Moreover, CK2 phosphorylated the TA domains in vitro. Treatment with CK2 inhibitor 2-dimethylamino-4,5,6,7,-tetrabromo-1H-benzimidazole (DMAT) blocked the induction of endogenous target genes of Nrf2 in cells and inhibited the TA activities of both the full length and the TA domains of Nrf2 to a large extent. Finally, phosphorylation of the TA domains correlated with the nuclear translocation of Nrf2 that was inhibited by DMAT in a concentration-dependent manner. The findings demonstrated that phosphorylation of Nrf2 at the TA domains by CK2 is an integral component of Nrf2 activation necessary for the nuclear localization and transcription activation function of Nrf2 in neuroblastoma cells.

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