A Real-Time Biosensor for ERK Activity Reveals Signaling Dynamics During C. Elegans Cell Fate Specification

Dev Cell. 2017 Sep 11;42(5):542-553.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2017.07.014. Epub 2017 Aug 17.


Kinase translocation reporters (KTRs) are genetically encoded fluorescent activity sensors that convert kinase activity into a nucleocytoplasmic shuttling equilibrium for visualizing single-cell signaling dynamics. Here, we adapt the first-generation KTR for extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) to allow easy implementation in vivo. This sensor, "ERK-nKTR," allows quantitative and qualitative assessment of ERK activity by analysis of individual nuclei and faithfully reports ERK activity during development and neural function in diverse cell contexts in Caenorhabditis elegans. Analysis of ERK activity over time in the vulval precursor cells, a well-characterized paradigm of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR)-Ras-ERK signaling, has identified dynamic features not evident from analysis of developmental endpoints alone, including pulsatile frequency-modulated signaling associated with proximity to the EGF source. The toolkit described here will facilitate studies of ERK signaling in other C. elegans contexts, and the design features will enable implementation of this technology in other multicellular organisms.

Keywords: C. elegans; ERK; biosensor; extracellular signal-regulated kinase; kinase translocation reporter; vulval development.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biosensing Techniques / methods*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / cytology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / enzymology*
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Lineage*
  • Cell Movement
  • Cell Nucleus / metabolism
  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Genes, Reporter
  • Germ Cells / cytology
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System*
  • Mammals
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Myoblasts / cytology
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Phosphorylation
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Stem Cells / cytology
  • Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Subcellular Fractions / metabolism
  • Vulva / cytology


  • Extracellular Signal-Regulated MAP Kinases