The MAPK cascades are principal kinase transduction pathways in eukaryotic cells. This family includes RAF/ERK, JNK, and p38 pathways. In the MAPK cascade, the signal is transmitted through three layers of sequentially activated kinases, MAP3K, MAP2K, and MAPK. The latter two kinases require dual phosphorylation for activation. The dual phosphorylation requirement has been implicated in bringing about bistability and switch-like responses in the cascade. MAPK signaling has been known to involve scaffolds-multidomain proteins that can assemble protein complexes; in this case the three MAPK components. Scaffolds are thought to increase the specificity of signaling by pairing enzymes and substrates. Scaffolds have been shown to biphasically control the response (the level of activated MAPK) and amplify it at a certain scaffold concentration range. In order to understand the interplay of scaffolding and multisite phosphorylation, in this study we analyze simplified MAPK signaling models in which we assume that either mono- or double phosphorylation of MAP2K and MAPK is required for activation. We demonstrate that the requirement for double phosphorylation directs signaling through scaffolds. In the hypothetical scenario in which mono-phosphorylation suffices for kinase activity, the presence of scaffolds has little effect on the response. This suggests that double phosphorylation in MAPK pathways, although not as efficient as mono-phosphorylation, evolved together with scaffolds to assure the tighter control and higher specificity in signaling, by enabling scaffolds to function as response amplifiers.
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