The study of IE (immediate-early) gene activation mechanisms has provided numerous paradigms for how transcription is controlled in response to extracellular signalling. Many of the findings have been derived from investigating one of the IE genes, FOS, and the models extrapolated to regulatory mechanisms for other IE genes. However, whereas the overall principles of activation appear similar, recent evidence suggests that the underlying mechanistic details may differ depending on cell type, cellular stimulus and IE gene under investigation. In the present paper, we review recent advances in our understanding of IE gene transcription, chiefly focusing on FOS and its activation by ERK (extracellular-signal-regulated kinase) MAPK (mitogen-activated protein kinase) pathway signalling. We highlight important fundamental regulatory principles, but also illustrate the gaps in our current knowledge and the potential danger in making assumptions based on extrapolation from disparate studies.

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