Signaling in the pheromone response pathway of budding yeast activates two distinct MAP kinases (MAPKs), Fus3 and Kss1. Either MAPK alone can mediate pheromone-induced transcription, but it has been unclear to what degree each one contributes to transcriptional output in wild-type cells. Here, we report that transcription reflects the ratio of active to inactive MAPK, and not simply the level of active MAPK. For Kss1 the majority of MAPK molecules must be converted to the active form, whereas for Fus3 only a small minority must be activated. These different activation thresholds reflect two opposing effects of each MAPK, in which the inactive forms inhibit transcription, whereas the active forms promote transcription. Moreover, negative feedback from Fus3 limits activation of Kss1 so that it does not meet its required threshold in wild-type cells but does so only when hyperactivated in cells lacking Fus3. The results suggest that the normal transcriptional response involves asymmetric contributions from the two MAPKs, in which pheromone signaling reduces the negative effect of Kss1 while increasing the positive effect of Fus3. These findings reveal new functional distinctions between these MAPKs, and help illuminate how inhibitory functions shape positive pathway outputs in both pheromone and filamentation pathways.
© 2018 Winters and Pryciak. This article is distributed by The American Society for Cell Biology under license from the author(s). Two months after publication it is available to the public under an Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0).