The mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signalling pathway serves to translocate information from activated plasma-membrane receptors to initiate nuclear transcriptional events. This cascade has recently been subdivided into two analogous pathways: the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) cascade, which preferentially signals mitogenesis, and the stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK) cascade, which is linked to growth arrest and/or cellular inflammation. In concurrent experiments utilizing rat glomerular mesangial cells (MCs), we demonstrate that growth factors or sphingosine activate ERK but not SAPK. In contrast, inflammatory cytokines or cell-permeable ceramide analogues activate SAPK but not ERK. Ceramide, but not sphingosine, induces interleukin-6 secretion, a marker of an inflamed phenotype. Moreover, ceramide can suppress growth factor- or sphingosine-induced ERK activation as well as proliferation. These studies implicate sphingolipid metabolites as opposing regulators of cell proliferation and inflammation through activation of separate kinase cascades.

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