Osmoregulation, the cellular response to environmental changes of osmolarity and ionic strength, is important for the survival of living organisms. We have demonstrated previously that an exposure of mammalian cells to hypo-osmotic stress, either in growth medium (30% growth medium and 70% water) or in binary solution containing sorbitol and water, prominently induced the DNA-binding activity of the heat-shock transcription factor (HSF1) [Huang, Caruccio, Liu and Chen (1995) Biochem. J. 307, 347-352]. Since hyperosmotic and hypo-osmotic stress usually elicit opposite biological responses, we wondered what would be the effect of hyperosmotic stress on HSF activation. In this study we have examined the HSF DNA-binding activity in HeLa cells maintained in the sorbitol/water binary solution over a wide concentration range (0.1-0.9 M) and in Dulbecco's medium supplemented with sorbitol or NaCl. We found that HSF-binding activity could be induced prominently under both hypo-osmotic (0.1-0.25 M) and hyperosmotic conditions (0.50-0.90 M). In both cases, HSF activation was observed within 5 min after changing the osmotic pressure. The activation was accompanied by both HSF trimerization and nuclear translocation, and appeared to be independent of protein synthesis. The effects of hypo- or hyper-osmotic stress on HSF activation could be reversed once the cells were returned to iso-osmotic conditions (0.30 M) with a half-life () of 25 min or less. This rapid turnover of the osmotic-stress-induced HSF-binding activity was inhibited by cycloheximide, a potent inhibitor of protein synthesis. Unlike heat shock, activation of HSF by either hypo- or hyper-osmotic stress did not lead to an accumulation of heat-shock protein 70 (HSP70) mRNA in HeLa cells. We propose that HSF activation during osmotic stress may serve physiological functions independent of the synthesis of heat-shock proteins.

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