Background/aims: As autophagy is linked to several pathological conditions, like cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, it is crucial to understand its regulatory signaling network. In this study, we investigated the role of the serum- and glucocorticoid-induced protein kinase 1 (SGK1) in the control of autophagy.
Methods: To measure autophagic activity in vivo, we quantified the abundance of the autophagy conjugates LC3-PE (phosphatidylethanolamine) and ATG12-ATG5 in tissue extracts of SGK1 wild-type (Sgk1+/+) and knockout (Sgk1-/-) mice that were either fed or starved for 24 h prior sacrifice. In vitro, we targeted SGK1 by RNAi using GFP-WIPI1 expressing U-2 OS cells to quantify the numbers of cells displaying newly formed autophagosomes. In parallel, these cells were also assessed with regard to LC3 and ULK1 by quantitative Western blotting.
Results: The abundance of both LC3-PE (LC3-II) and ATG12-ATG5 was significantly increased in red muscle tissues of SGK1 knockout mice. This was found in particular in fed conditions, suggesting that SGK1 may keep basal autophagy under control in red muscle in vivo. Under starved conditions, significant differences were observed in SGK1-deficient white muscle tissue and, under fed conditions, also in the liver. In vitro, we found that SGK1 silencing provoked a significant increase of cells displaying WIPI1-positive autophagosomes and autophagosomal LC3 (LC3-II). Moreover, autophagic flux assessments revealed that autophagic degradation significantly increased in the absence of SGK1, strongly suggesting that SGK1 inhibits both autophagosome formation and autophagic degradation in vitro. In addition, more ULK1 protein lacking the inhibitory, TORC1-specific phosphorylation at serine 758 was detected in the absence of SGK1.
Conclusions: Combined, our data strongly support the idea that SGK1 inhibits the process of autophagy. Mechanistically, our data suggest that SGK1 should act upstream of ULK1 in regulating autophagy, and we hypothesize that SGK1 contributes to the regulation of ULK1 gene expression.