Functional specificity of ras isoforms: so similar but so different

Genes Cancer. 2011 Mar;2(3):216-31. doi: 10.1177/1947601911408081.


H-ras, N-ras, and K-ras are canonical ras gene family members frequently activated by point mutation in human cancers and coding for 4 different, highly related protein isoforms (H-Ras, N-Ras, K-Ras4A, and K-Ras4B). Their expression is nearly ubiquitous and broadly conserved across eukaryotic species, although there are quantitative and qualitative differences of expression depending on the tissue and/or developmental stage under consideration. Extensive functional studies have determined during the last quarter century that these Ras gene products are critical components of signaling pathways that control eukaryotic cell proliferation, survival, and differentiation. However, because of their homology and frequent coexpression in various cellular contexts, it remained unclear whether the different Ras proteins play specific or overlapping functional roles in physiological and pathological processes. Initially, their high degree of sequence homology and the observation that all Ras isoforms share common sets of downstream effectors and upstream activators suggested that they were mostly redundant functionally. In contrast, the notion of functional specificity for each of the different Ras isoforms is supported at present by an increasing body of experimental observations, including 1) the fact that different ras isoforms are preferentially mutated in specific types of tumors or developmental disorders; 2) the different transforming potential of transfected ras genes in different cell contexts; 3) the distinct sensitivities exhibited by the various Ras family members for modulation by different GAPs or GEFs; 4) the demonstration that different Ras isoforms follow distinct intracellular processing pathways and localize to different membrane microdomains or subcellular compartments; 5) the different phenotypes displayed by genetically modified animal strains for each of the 3 ras loci; and 6) the specific transcriptional networks controlled by each isoform in different cellular settings.

Keywords: Ras; Ras isoforms; canonical Ras; functional specificity; redundancy.