Retinoic acid induces cell differentiation and suppresses cell growth in a wide spectrum of cell lines, and down-regulation of activator protein-1 activity by retinoic acid contributes to these effects. In embryonic stem cell-like F9 teratocarcinoma cells, which are widely used to study retinoic acid actions on gene regulation and early embryonic differentiation, retinoic acid treatment for 4 days resulted in suppression of cell growth and differentiation into primitive and then visceral endoderm-like cells, accompanied by a suppression of serum-induced c-Fos expression. The MAPK (ERK) pathway was involved in mitogenic signaling in F9 cells stimulated with serum. Surprisingly, although c-Fos expression was reduced, the MAPK activity was not decreased by retinoic acid treatment. We found that retinoic acid treatment inhibited the phosphorylation of Elk-1, a target of activated MAPK required for c-Fos transcription. In F9 cells, the MAPK/MEK inhibitor PD98059 suppressed Elk-1 phosphorylation and c-Fos expression, indicating that MAPK activity is required for Elk-1 phosphorylation/activation. Phosphoprotein phosphatase 2B (calcineurin), the major phosphatase for activated Elk-1, is not the target in the disassociation of MAPK activation and c-Fos expression since its inhibition by cyclosporin A or activation by ionomycin had no significant effects on serum-stimulated c-Fos expression and Elk-1 phosphorylation. Thus, we conclude that retinoic acid treatment to induce F9 cell differentiation uncouples Ras/MAPK activation from c-Fos expression by reduction of Elk-1 phosphorylation through a mechanism not involving the activation of phosphoprotein phosphatase 2B.
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