Depolarization of the sarcolemma of smooth muscle cells activates voltage-gated Ca2+ channels, influx of Ca2+ and activation of cross-bridge cycling by phosphorylation of myosin catalysed by Ca2+/calmodulin-dependent myosin light-chain kinase (MLCK). Agonist stimulation of smooth muscle contraction often involves other kinases in addition to MLCK. In the present study, we address the hypothesis that membrane depolarization-induced contraction of rat caudal arterial smooth muscle may involve activation of Rho-associated kinase (ROK). Addition of 60mM K+ to de-endothelialized muscle strips in the presence of prazosin and propranolol induced a contraction that peaked rapidly and then declined to a steady level of force corresponding to approx. 30% of the peak contraction. This contractile response was abolished by the Ca2+-channel blocker nicardipine or the removal of extracellular Ca2+. An MLCK inhibitor (ML-9) inhibited both the phasic and tonic components of K+-induced contraction. On the other hand, the ROK inhibitors Y-27632 and HA-1077 abolished the tonic component of K+-induced contraction, and slightly reduced the phasic component. Phosphorylation levels of the 20-kDa light chain of myosin increased rapidly in response to 60mM K+ and subsequently declined to a steady-state level significantly greater than the resting level. Y-27632 abolished the sustained and reduced the phasic elevation of the phosphorylation of the 20-kDa light chain of myosin, without affecting the K+-induced elevation of cytosolic free Ca2+ concentration. These results indicate that ROK activation plays an important role in the sustained phase of K+-induced contraction of rat caudal arterial smooth muscle, but has little involvement in the phasic component of K+-induced contraction. Furthermore, these results are consistent with inhibition of myosin light-chain phosphatase by ROK, which would account for the sustained elevation of myosin phosphorylation and tension in response to membrane depolarization.

Abbreviations used: [Ca2+]i, cytosolic free Ca2+ concentration; CaM, calmodulin; DTT, dithiothreitol; H-T solution, Hepes/Tyrode solution; LC20, 20-kDa light chain of myosin; MLCK, myosin light-chain kinase; MLCP, myosin light-chain phosphatase; NPY, neuropeptide Y; PKC, protein kinase C; ROK, Rho-associated kinase.

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