ERK1/2 signaling is required for the initiation but not progression of TGFβ-induced lens epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT)

Exp Eye Res. 2017 Jun;159:98-113. doi: 10.1016/j.exer.2017.03.012. Epub 2017 Mar 30.


Transforming Growth Factor Beta (TGFβ) potently induces lens epithelial to mesenchymal transition (EMT). The resultant mesenchymal cells resemble those found in plaques of human forms of subcapsular cataract. Smad signaling has long been implicated as the sole driving force of TGFβ-mediated activity. Rat lens epithelial explants were used to examine the role of the Smad-independent signaling, namely the MAPK/ERK1/2 signaling pathway, in the initiation and progression of TGFβ-induced EMT. Phase contrast microscopy was used to observe the morphological changes associated with TGFβ-induced EMT in this model, including cell elongation, cell membrane blebbing, cell loss as indicated by the area of bare capsule and capsular wrinkling. The levels of Smad2, Smad2/3 and ERK1/2 phosphorylation measured using western blotting confirmed that the addition of UO126 was sufficient in blocking all TGFβ-induced ERK1/2 activation, as well as reducing Smad signaling at 18 h. Immunofluorescent labeling and further western blotting confirmed that TGFβ-induced EMT was associated with an increase in α-smooth muscle actin (α-SMA) and a reduction of E-cadherin at cell borders. Pre-treatment with UO126 was effective at blocking the TGFβ-induced EMT, as evidenced by a reduction of α-SMA expression and protein labeling, E-cadherin labeling at cell borders, and a reduction of cell loss, cell elongation and capsular wrinkling. Post-treatment with UO126 at 2 and 6 h after TGFβ addition was also effective at blocking EMT while post-treatment with UO126 at 24 and 48 h was not sufficient in hampering TGFβ-induced EMT. Our data implicates ERK1/2 signaling in the initiation but not the progression of TGFβ-induced EMT in rat lens epithelial cells. The tight regulation of intracellular signaling pathways such as ERK1/2 are required for the maintenance of lens epithelial cell integrity and hence tissue transparency. A greater understanding of the molecular mechanisms that drive the induction and progression of EMT in the lens will provide the basis for potential therapeutics for human cataract.

Keywords: EMT; ERK1/2; Lens pathology; TGFβ.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Blotting, Western
  • Cataract / genetics
  • Cataract / metabolism*
  • Cataract / pathology
  • Cell Proliferation
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells / pathology
  • Epithelial-Mesenchymal Transition / genetics*
  • Lens, Crystalline / drug effects
  • Lens, Crystalline / metabolism*
  • Lens, Crystalline / pathology
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System / genetics*
  • Microscopy, Phase-Contrast
  • Phosphorylation
  • RNA / genetics
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Signal Transduction
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / pharmacology*


  • Transforming Growth Factor beta
  • RNA