Activation of mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAP kinase) plays an important role in the cellular effects of nerve growth factor (NGF). Although the precise pathway by which NGF activates MAP kinase is not clear, several enzymes have been identified that may form a linear phosphorylation cascade, in which MAP kinase is activated by MAP kinase kinase (MEK). A key enzyme that links the ras-GTP complex to MEK is widely believed to be the raf kinase. However, immunoprecipitation experiments in PC-12 cells revealed that raf is not the major NGF-dependent MEK kinase [Zheng, Ohmichi, Saltiel and Guan (1994) Biochemistry 33, 5595-5599]. We have identified a protein kinase from PC-12 cells that catalyses both the phosphorylation and activation of MEK. This activity is stimulated 3-fold in cells treated with NGF. The partial purification on FPLC and characterization of this MEK kinase indicate that it is distinct from raf, MEK, MAP kinase and other previously described NGF-stimulated protein kinases. The activity of this enzyme is unaffected by direct addition to the assay of heparin, staurosporine, K252A and the heat-stable cyclic AMP-dependent kinase peptide inhibitor, but is slightly inhibited by NaF and calcium ions. Comparison of its behaviour on gel permeation and sucrose-density gradients indicates a molecular mass in the region of 50,000 Da. Moreover, isoelectric focusing of the enzyme revealed a pI of approx. 7.3. The kinase activity is specific for ATP as substrate with a Km of 11 microM, and requires Mg2+ as a cofactor. Analysis of the activation of this enzyme in PC-12 cells transfected with a dominant inhibitory mutant of p21ras suggests that this MEK kinase resides downstream of ras in the MAP kinase activation pathway. Moreover, site-directed mutation of the residues on MEK that are phosphorylated by raf does not completely abrogate phosphorylation by the MEK kinase, suggesting that this enzyme may share some phosphorylation sites with raf, but also phosphorylates MEK on other sites.

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