Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Interdisciplinary Graduate Program


Program in Molecular Medicine

First Thesis Advisor

Roger J. Davis, Ph.D.


MAP Kinase Signaling System, Gene Expression, Protein Kinases, Apoptosis



Basic biological processes require gene expression. Tightly regulated molecules known as transcription factors mediate the expression of genes in development and disease. Signal transduction pathways, which respond to environmental cues or stressors are major regulators of the transcription factors. Use of macromolecular synthesis inhibitors in models of normal neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative cell death has led to the discovery that gene expression is required for these processes to occur (Martin et. al.,(1988), J Cell Biol 106p829). To date, however, the identities of very few of the genes required in these events have been revealed. Hence, the activation or requirement of specific signaling pathways leading to the expression of known apoptotic genes is not well established. Utilizing the neurothrophic factor deprivation and neurotoxin models of programmed cell death we address these gaps in our understanding of the molecular mechanism of apoptosis as it occurs in neuronal cell death.

Nerve growth factor (NGF) withdrawal from PC12 cells leads to the activation of p38 and apoptosis. The functional significance of 38 activation in this paradigm of cell death is not known. To increase our understanding of apoptosis I examined the requirement for p38 activity in pro-apoptotic gene expression in PC12 cells. I performed a subtractive hybridization that led to the identification of the monoamine oxidase (MAG) gene as induced in response to NGF withdrawal. Using the p38 inhibitor PD169316 I showed that the NGF withdrawal stimulated induction of the MAG gene and apoptosis is blocked by inhibition of the p38 MAP kinase pathway. I also determined that the MAG inhibitor clorgyline blocked cell death indicating that MAG activity contributes to the cell death caused by NGF withdrawal. Together, these data indicate that the p38 MAP kinase pathway targets the MAG gene in response to apoptotic stimuli.

To study the requirement for the JNK signaling pathway in neurodegeneration I stimulated primary cortical neurons with the neurotoxin arsenite. Arsenite treatment of primary neurons leads to both JNK and p38 activation and subsequently apoptosis. Utilizing transgenic mice lacking the JNK3 gene I demonstrated that JNK3 specifically contributes to the effects of arsenite in these cells. Ribonuclease protection assays were used to identify Fas ligand as a molecule whose arsenite-induced expression is dependent on the JNK3 signal transduction pathway. Furthermore, I have shown that neurons deficient in signaling mediated by the receptor for Fas ligand are resistant to cell death due to arsenite treatment. These results in total have established that the JNK3 mediated expression of Fas ligand contributes to the arsenite induced death of cortical neurons.

In summary, the work presented in these studies identifies the JNK and p38 MAP kinase signal transduction pathways as mediators of apoptosis in neuronal cells. Importantly, I have provided evidence that these stress activated pathways are responsible for the expression of specific genes in apoptotic neuronal cells.


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