Specificity in signal transduction is essential to ensure distinct and appropriate cellular responses to extracellular cues. Determining the mechanisms that mediate specificity is key to understanding complex cell behaviors in development, when multiple pathways fire simultaneously and individual pathways are used recurrently. Jun kinase (JNK) signal transduction exemplifies a pathway that is used multiple times in animal development and homeostasis. Indeed, molecular genetic analysis of JNK signaling in Drosophila has shown that a core signaling module consisting of Hep (JNKK), Bsk (JNK), and Jun regulates various processes, including tissue morphogenesis, wound repair, stress response, innate immune response, and others. Six putative JNKK kinase (JNKKK) family members are present in the fly genome, which could activate the core module in response to distinct stimuli. The diversity of kinases at this level of the signaling hierarchy could substantially increase the number of possible signals that feed into activation of the core module. Recent studies have described the distinct phenotypic consequences of mutations in three of the genes, Slpr (dMLK), Tak1, and Mekk1. These data, together with Drosophila cell culture and genomic array analyses support the contention that the choice of JNKKK may contribute to signaling specificity in vivo. Whether this is achieved by individual JNKKKs or by means of a combinatorial mechanism will require a systematic characterization of compound mutants and a toolbox of transcriptional reporters specific for distinct JNK-dependent processes.
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