The N-terminal domain of ERK1 accounts for the functional differences with ERK2

Matilde Marchi, Angela D'Antoni, Ivan Formentini, Riccardo Parra, Riccardo Brambilla, Gian Michele Ratto, Mario Costa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Extracellular Regulated Kinase 1 and 2 transduce a variety of extracellular stimuli regulating processes as diverse as proliferation, differentiation and synaptic plasticity. Once activated in the cytoplasm, ERK1 and ERK2 translocate into the nucleus and interact with nuclear substrates to induce specific programs of gene expression. ERK1/ 2 share 85% of aminoacid identity and all known functional domains and thence they have been considered functionally equivalent until recent studies found that the ablation of either ERK1 or ERK2 causes dramatically different phenotypes. To search a molecular justification of this dichotomy we investigated whether the different functions of ERK1 and 2 might depend on the properties of their cytoplasmic-nuclear trafficking. Since in the nucleus ERK1/2 is predominantly inactivated, the maintenance of a constant level of nuclear activity requires continuous shuttling of activated protein from the cytoplasm. For this reason, different nuclear-cytoplasmic trafficking of ERK1 and 2 would cause a differential signalling capability. We have characterised the trafficking of fluorescently tagged ERK1 and ERK2 by means of time-lapse imaging in living cells. Surprisingly, we found that ERK1 shuttles between the nucleus and cytoplasm at a much slower rate than ERK2. This difference is caused by a domain of ERK1 located at its N-terminus since the progressive deletion of these residues converted the shuttling features of ERK1 into those of ERK2. Conversely, the fusion of this ERK1 sequence at the N-terminus of ERK2 slowed down its shuttling to a similar value found for ERK1. Finally, computational, biochemical and cellular studies indicated that the reduced nuclear shuttling of ERK1 causes a strong reduction of its nuclear phosphorylation compared to ERK2, leading to a reduced capability of ERK1 to carry proliferative signals to the nucleus. This mechanism significantly contributes to the differential ability of ERK1 and 2 to generate an overall signalling output.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3873
JournalPLoS One
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 4 2008

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Medicine(all)


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