ERK (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase) activation leads to disruption of tight junctions in some epithelial monolayers, whereas it prevents disruption of tight junctions in other epithelia. The factors responsible for such contrasting influences of ERK on tight junction integrity are unknown. The present study investigated the effect of the state of cell differentiation on ERK-mediated regulation of tight junctions in Caco-2 cell monolayers. EGF (epidermal growth factor) potentiated H2O2-induced tight junction disruption in under-differentiated cell monolayers, which was attenuated by the MEK [MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase)/ERK kinase] inhibitor U0126. In contrast, EGF prevented H2O2-induced disruption of tight junctions in differentiated cell monolayers, which was also attenuated by U0126. Knockdown of ERK1/2 enhanced tight junction integrity and accelerated assembly of tight junctions in under-differentiated cell monolayers, whereas it had the opposite effect in differentiated cell monolayers. Regulated expression of wild-type and constitutively active MEK1 disrupted tight junctions, and the expression of dominant-negative MEK1 enhanced tight junction integrity in under-differentiated cells, whereas contrasting responses were recorded in differentiated cells. EGF prevented both H2O2-induced association of PP2A (protein phosphatase 2A), and loss of association of PKCζ (protein kinase Cζ), with occludin by an ERK-dependent mechanism in differentiated cell monolayers, but not in under-differentiated cell monolayers. Active ERK was distributed in the intracellular compartment in under-differentiated cell monolayers, whereas it was localized mainly in the perijunctional region in differentiated cell monolayers. Thus ERK may exhibit its contrasting influences on tight junction integrity in under-differentiated and differentiated epithelial cells by virtue of differences in its subcellular distribution and ability to regulate the association of PKCζ and PP2A with tight junction proteins.

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