Mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase phosphatase-1 (MKP-1) is the archetypal member of the dual-specificity protein phosphatase family, the expression of which can be rapidly induced by a variety of growth factors and cellular stress. Since MKP-1 protein localizes in the nucleus, it has been suggested to play an important role in the feedback control of MAP kinase-regulated gene transcription. Recently it has been demonstrated that the interaction of several cytosolic MAP kinase phosphatases with MAP kinases can trigger the catalytic activation of the phosphatases. It is unclear whether such a regulatory mechanism can apply to nuclear MAP kinase phosphatases and serve as an additional apparatus for the feedback control of MAP kinase-mediated gene expression. Here we have shown that MKP-1 associates directly with p38 MAP kinase both in vivo and in vitro, and that this interaction enhances the catalytic activity of MKP-1. The point mutation Asp-316 → Asn in the C-terminus of p38, analogous to the ERK2 (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase 2) sevenmaker mutation, dramatically decreases its binding to MKP-1 and substantially compromises its stimulatory effect on the catalytic activity of this phosphatase. Consistent with its defective interaction with MKP-1, this p38 mutant also displays greater resistance to dephosphorylation by the phosphatase. Our studies provide the first example of catalytic activation of a nuclear MAP kinase phosphatase through direct binding to a MAP kinase, suggesting that such a regulatory mechanism may play an important role in the feedback control of MAP kinase signalling in the nuclear compartment.

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