Tau is a microtubule-associated protein that is functionally modulated by phosphorylation and hyperphosphorylated in several neurodegenerative diseases. Because phosphorylation regulates both normal and pathological tau functioning, it is of great interest to identify the signalling pathways and enzymes capable of modulating tau phosphorylation in vivo. The present study examined changes in tau phosphorylation and localization in response to osmotic stress, which activates the stress-activated protein kinases (SAPKs), a family of proline-directed protein kinases shown to phosphorylate tau in vitro and hypothesized to phosphorylate tau in Alzheimer's disease. Immunoblot analysis with phosphorylation-dependent antibodies revealed that osmotic stress increased tau phosphorylation at the non-Ser/Thr-Pro sites Ser-262/356, within the microtubule-binding domain, as well as Ser/Thr-Pro sites outside of tau's microtubule-binding domain. Although all SAPKs examined were activated by osmotic stress, none of the endogenous SAPKs mediated the increase in tau phosphorylation. However, when transfected into SH-SY5Y cells, SAPK3, but not the other SAPKs examined, phosphorylated tau in situ in response to activation by osmotic stress. Osmotic-stress-induced tau phosphorylation correlated with a decrease in the amount of tau associated with the cytoskeleton and an increase in the amount of soluble tau. This stress-induced alteration in tau localization was only partially due to phosphorylation at Ser-262/356 by a staurosporine-sensitive, non-proline-directed, protein kinase. Taken together, these results suggest that osmotic stress activates at least two tau-directed protein kinases, one proline-directed and one non-proline-directed, that SAPK3 can phosphorylate tau on Ser/Thr-Pro residues in situ, and that Ser-262/356 phosphorylation only partially regulates tau localization in the cell.

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