Expression of an activated extracellular signal-regulated kinase 1 (ERK1) construct in yeast cells was used to examine the conservation of function among mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinases. Sequence alignment of the human MAP kinase ERK1 with all Saccharomyces cerevisiae kinases reveals a particularly strong kinship with Kss1p (invasive growth promoting MAP kinase), Fus3p (pheromone response MAP/ERK kinase), and Mpk1p (cell wall remodeling MAP kinase). A fusion protein of constitutively active human MAP/ERK kinase 1 (MEK) and human ERK1 was introduced under regulated expression into yeast cells. The fusion protein (MEK/ERK) induced a filamentation response element promoter and led to a growth retardation effect concomitant with a morphological change resulting in elongated cells, bipolar budding, and multicell chains. Induction of filamentous growth was also observed for diploid cells following MEK/ERK expression in liquid culture. Neither haploids nor diploids, however, showed marked penetration of agar medium. These effects could be triggered by either moderate MEK/ERK expression at 37 °C or by high level MEK/ERK expression at 30 °C. The combination of high level MEK/ERK expression and 37 °C resulted in cell death. The deleterious effects of MEK/ERK expression and high temperature were significantly mitigated by 1 M sorbitol, which also enhanced the filamentous phenotype. MEK/ERK was able to constitutively activate a cell wall maintenance reporter gene, suggesting misregulation of this pathway. In contrast, MEK/ERK effectively blocked expression from a pheromone-responsive element promoter and inhibited mating. These results are consistent with MEK/ERK promoting filamentous growth and altering the cell wall through its ability to partially mimic Kss1p and stimulate a pathway normally controlled by Mpk1p, while appearing to inhibit the normal functioning of the structurally related yeast MAP kinase Fus3p.
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