Survival of memory B lymphocytes is tightly linked to the integrity of the Bcl-2 protein and is regulated by a nerve growth factor (NGF) autocrine circuit. In factor-starved memory B cells, the addition of exogenous NGF promptly induced p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), but not c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), dephosphorylation. Conversely, withdrawal of endogenous NGF was followed by p38 MAPK activation and translocation onto mitochondria, whereby it combined with and phosphorylated Bcl-2, as assessed by co-immunoprecipitation and kinase assays in vivo and in vitro. Mitochondria isolated from human memory B cells, then exposed to recombinant p38 MAPK, released cytochrome c, as did mitochondria from Bcl-2-negative MDCK cells loaded with recombinant Bcl-2. Apoptosis induced by NGF neutralization could be blocked by the specific p38 MAPK inhibitor SB203580 or by Bcl-2 mutations in Ser-87 or Thr-56. These data demonstrate that the molecular mechanisms underlying the survival factor function of NGF critically rely upon the continuous inactivation of p38 MAPK, a Bcl-2-modifying enzyme.
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