Publication Date


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Academic Program

Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology


Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology

First Thesis Advisor

Alonzo H. Ross


Cell Differentiation, Cyclins, Neurons, Nerve Growth Factor, Nitric Oxide, Nitric-Oxide Synthase, Proto-Oncogene Proteins, Signal Transduction


Nitric oxide is a ubiquitous signaling molecule with both physiological and pathological functions in biological systems. Formed by the enzymatic conversion of arginine to citrulline, NO, has known roles in circulatory, immune and nervous tissues. In the nervous system nitric oxide has been implicated in long-term potentiation, neurotransmitter release, channel function, neuronal protection and neuronal degeneration. Much of our work has focused on yet another role for nitric oxide in cells, namely, neuronal differentiation.

During development, neuronal differentiation is closely coupled with cessation of proliferation. We use nerve growth factor (NGF)-induced differentiation of PC12 pheochromocytoma cells as a model and find a novel signal transduction pathway that blocks cell proliferation. Treatment of PC12 cells with NGF leads to induction of nitric oxide synthase (NOS). The resulting nitric oxide (NO) acts as a second messenger, activating the p21(WAF1) promoter and inducing expression of p21(WAF1) cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor. NO activates the p21(WAF1) promoter by p53-dependent and p53-independent mechanisms. Blocking production of NO with an inhibitor of NOS reduces accumulation of p53, activation of the p21(WAF1) promoter, expression of neuronal markers, and neurite extension. To deternine whether p21(WAF1) is required for neurite extension, we prepared a PC12 line with an inducible p21(WAF1) expression vector. Blocking NOS with an inhibitor decreases neurite extension, but induction of p21(WAF1) with isopropyl-1-thio-beta-D-galactopyranoside restored this response. Levels of p21(WAF1) induced by isopropyl-1-thio-beta-D-galactopyranoside were similar to those induced by NGF. Therefore, we have identified a signal transduction pathway that is activated by NGF; proceeds through NOS, p53 and p21(WAF1) to block cell proliferation; and is required for neuronal differentiation by PC12 cells.

In further studies of this pathway, we have examined the role of MAP kinase pathways in neuronal nitric oxide synthase (nNOS) induction during the differentiation of PC12 cells. In NGF-treated PC12 cells, we find that nNOS is induced at RNA and protein levels, resulting in increased NOS activity. We note that neither nNOS mRNA, nNOS protein nor NOS activity is induced by NGF treatment in cells that have been infected with a dominant negative Ras adenovirus. We have also used drugs that block MAP kinase pathways and assessed their ability to inhibit nNOS induction. Even though U0126 and PD98059 are both MEK inhibitors, we find that U0126, but not PD98059, blocks nNOS induction and NOS activity in NGF-treated PC12 cells. Also, the p38 kinase inhibitor, SB 203580, does not block nNOS induction in our clone of PC12 cells. Since the JNK pathway is not activated in NGF-treated PC12 cells, we determine that the Ras-ERK pathway and not the p38 or JNK pathway is required for nNOS induction in NGF-treated PC12 cells. We find that U0l26 is much more effective than PD98059 in blocking the Ras-ERK pathway, thereby explaining the discrepancy in nNOS inhibition. We conclude that the Ras-ERK pathway is required for nNOS induction.

The activation of soluble guanylate cyclase and the production of cyclic GMP is one of the best characterized modes of NO action. Having shown that inhibition of NOS blocks PC12 cell differentiation we tested whether nitric oxide acts through soluble guanylate cyclase to lead to cell cycle arrest and neuronal differentiation. Unlike NOS inhibition, the inhibition of soluble guanylate cylcase does not block the induction of neuronal markers. Moreover, treatment of NGF-treated, NOS-inhibited PC12 cells with a soluble analog of cyclic GMP was unable to restore differentiation of those cells. Hence, cGMP is not a component of this pathway and we had to consider other mechanisms of NO action.

It has become increasingly evident that another manner by which NO may exert its effects is by S-nitrosylation of cysteine residues. We tested, in vitro whether nitric oxide may control p53 by S-nitrosylation and inactivation of the p53 negative regulator, Hdm2. Treatment of Hdm2 with a nitric oxide donor inhibits Hdm2-p53 binding, the first step in Hdm2 regulation of p53. The presence of cysteine or DTT blocks this inhibition of binding. Moreover, nitric oxide inhibition of Hdm2-p53 binding was found to be reversible. Sulfhydryl-sensitivity and reversibility are consistent with nitrosylation. Finally, we have identified a critical cysteine residue that nitric oxide modifies in order to disrupt Hdm2-p53 binding. Mutation of this residue from a cysteine to an alanine does not interfere with binding but rather eliminates the sensitivity of Hdm2 to nitric oxide inactivation.


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