Background: The MAPK/ERK1/2 serine kinases are primary mediators of the Ras mitogenic signaling pathway. Phosphorylation by MEK activates MAPK/ERK in the cytoplasm, and phospho-ERK is thought to enter the nucleus readily to modulate transcription.
Principal findings: Here, however, we observe that in primary cultures of breast and ovarian epithelial cells, phosphorylation and activation of ERK1/2 are disassociated from nuclear translocalization and transcription of downstream targets, such as c-Fos, suggesting that nuclear translocation is limited in primary cells. Accordingly, in import assays in vitro, primary cells showed a lower import activity for ERK1/2 than cancer cells, in which activated MAPK readily translocated into the nucleus and activated c-Fos expression. Primary cells express lower levels of nuclear pore complex proteins and the nuclear transport factors, importin B1 and importin 7, which may explain the limiting ERK1/2 import found in primary cells. Additionally, reduction in expression of nucleoporin 153 by siRNA targeting reduced ERK1/2 nuclear activity in cancer cells.
Conclusion: ERK1/2 activation is dissociated from nuclear entry, which is a rate limiting step in primary cells and in vivo, and the restriction of nuclear entry is disrupted in transformed cells by the increased expression of nuclear pores and/or nuclear transport factors.