Ras is a major mediator of PE (phorbol ester) effects in mammalian cells. Various mechanisms for PE activation of Ras have been reported [Downward, Graves, Warne, Rayter and Cantrell (1990) Nature (London) 346, 719–723; Shu, Wu, Mosteller and Broek (2002) Mol. Cell. Biol. 22, 7758–7768; Roose, Mollenauer, Gupta, Stone and Weiss (2005) Mol. Cell. Biol. 25, 4426–4441; Grosse, Roelle, Herrlich, Höhn and Gudermann (2000) J. Biol. Chem. 275, 12251–12260], including pathways that target GAPs (GTPase-activating proteins) for inactivation and those that result in activation of GEFs (guanine nucleotide-exchange factors) Sos (son of sevenless homologue) or RasGRP (RAS guanyl releasing protein). However, a biochemical link between PE and GAP inactivation is missing and GEF stimulation is hard to reconcile with the observation that dominant-negative S17N-Ras does not compromise Ras-dependent ERK (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase) activation by PE. We have addressed this controversy and carried out an in-depth biochemical study of PE-induced Ras activation in COS-7 cells. Using a cell-permeabilization approach to monitor nucleotide exchange on Ras, we demonstrate that PE-induced Ras-GTP accumulation results from GEF stimulation. Nucleotide exchange stimulation by PE is prevented by PKC (protein kinase C) inhibition but not by EGFR [EGF (epidermal growth factor) receptor] blockade, despite the fact that EGFR inhibition aborts basal and PE-induced Shc (Src homology and collagen homology) phosphorylation and Shc–Grb2 (growth-factor-receptor-bound protein 2) association. In fact, EGFR inhibition ablates basal nucleotide exchange on Ras in growth-arrested COS-7 cells. These data disclose the existence of two separate GEF systems that operate independently from each other to accomplish PE-dependent formation of Ras-GTP and to maintain resting Ras-GTP levels respectively. We document that COS-7 cells do not express RasGRP and present evidence that the PE-responsive GEF system may involve PKC-dependent phosphorylation of Sos. More fundamentally, these observations shed new light on enigmatic issues such as the inefficacy of S17N-Ras in blocking PE action or the role of the EGFR in heterologous agonist activation of the Ras/ERK pathway.

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