Through the action of its membrane-bound type I receptors, transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) elicits a wide range of cellular responses that regulate cell proliferation, differentiation and apoptosis. Many of the signaling responses induced by TGF-beta are mediated by Smad proteins, but certain evidence has suggested that TGF-beta can also signal independently of Smads. We found in mouse mammary epithelial (NMuMG) cells, which respond to TGF-beta treatment in multiple ways, that TGF-beta-induced activation of p38 MAP kinase is required for TGF-beta-induced apoptosis, epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), but not growth arrest. We further demonstrated that activation of p38 is independent of Smads using a mutant type I receptor, which is incapable of activating Smads but still retains the kinase activity. This mutant receptor is sufficient to activate p38 and cause NMuMG cells to undergo apoptosis. However, it is not sufficient to induce EMT. These results indicate that TGF-beta receptor signals through multiple intracellular pathways and provide first-hand biochemical evidence for the existence of Smad-independent TGF-beta receptor signaling.
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