MAPK activity dynamics regulate non-cell autonomous effects of oncogene expression

Elife. 2020 Sep 17:9:e60541. doi: 10.7554/eLife.60541.


A large fraction of human cancers contain genetic alterations within the Mitogen Activated Protein Kinase (MAPK) signaling network that promote unpredictable phenotypes. Previous studies have shown that the temporal patterns of MAPK activity (i.e. signaling dynamics) differentially regulate cell behavior. However, the role of signaling dynamics in mediating the effects of cancer driving mutations has not been systematically explored. Here, we show that oncogene expression leads to either pulsatile or sustained ERK activity that correlate with opposing cellular behaviors (i.e. proliferation vs. cell cycle arrest, respectively). Moreover, sustained-but not pulsatile-ERK activity triggers ERK activity waves in unperturbed neighboring cells that depend on the membrane metalloprotease ADAM17 and EGFR activity. Interestingly, the ADAM17-EGFR signaling axis coordinates neighboring cell migration toward oncogenic cells and is required for oncogenic cell extrusion. Overall, our data suggests that the temporal patterns of MAPK activity differentially regulate cell autonomous and non-cell autonomous effects of oncogene expression.

Keywords: biosensors; cancer biology; cell biology; human; live-cell imaging; signaling dynamics.

Plain language summary

In animals, the MAPK pathway is a network of genes that helps a cell to detect and then respond to an external signal by switching on or off a specific genetic program. In particular, cells use this pathway to communicate with each other. In an individual cell, the MAPK pathway shows fluctuations in activity over time. Mutations in the genes belonging to the MAPK pathway are often one of the first events that lead to the emergence of cancers. However, different mutations in the genes of the pathway can have diverse effects on a cell’s behavior: some mutations cause the cell to divide while others make it migrate. Recent research has suggested that these effects may be caused by changes in the pattern of MAPK signaling activity over time. Here, Aikin et al. used fluorescent markers to document how different MAPK mutations influence the behavior of a human breast cell and its healthy neighbors. The experiments showed that cells with different MAPK mutations behaved in one of two ways: the signaling quickly pulsed between high and low levels of activity, or it remained at a sustained high level. In turn, these two signaling patterns altered cell behavior in different ways. Pulsed signaling led to more cell division, while sustained signaling stopped division and increased migration. Aikin et al. then examined the effect of the MAPK mutations on neighboring healthy cells. Sustained signaling from the cancerous cell caused a wave of signaling activity in the surrounding cells. This led the healthy cells to divide and migrate toward the cancerous cell, pushing it out of the tissue layer. It is not clear if these changes protect against or promote cancer progression in living tissue. However, these results explain why specific cancer mutations cause different behaviors in cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • ADAM17 Protein / genetics
  • ADAM17 Protein / metabolism
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • ErbB Receptors / genetics
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic / genetics*
  • Humans
  • MAP Kinase Signaling System / genetics*
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / genetics*
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • Mutation / genetics
  • Neoplasms / genetics*
  • Neoplasms / metabolism
  • Oncogenes / genetics*


  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • ADAM17 Protein
  • ADAM17 protein, human