Background: Rho is a small GTPase that controls signal transduction pathways in response to a large number of extracellular stimuli. With over 15 potential Rho target proteins identified to date, however, it is not clear how distinct signaling outputs can be generated downstream of a particular stimulus.
Results: Several of the known Rho targets are structurally reminiscent of scaffold proteins, which are generally thought to play an important role in controlling signaling specificity. Here, we show that the Rho target CNK1 is a scaffold protein that interacts with Net1 or p115RhoGEF, two Rho-specific guanine nucleotide exchange factors (GEFs), as well with MLK2 and MKK7, two of the kinase components in the JNK MAP kinase cascade. CNK1 acts cooperatively with the two GEFs to activate JNK MAP kinase, but not other Rho-mediated pathways. In HeLa cells, serum or sphingosine-1-phosphate stimulate Rho-dependent activation of the JNK MAP kinase cascade, and this requires endogenous CNK1.
Conclusions: We conclude that CNK1 couples a subset of Rho exchange factors to activation of the JNK MAP kinase pathway and that signaling specificity is achieved through complexes containing both upstream activators and downstream targets of Rho.