Activation of NF-kappaB by the pro-inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor (TNF) and interleukin-1 (IL-1) requires the IkappaB kinase (IKK) complex, which contains two kinases named IKKalpha and IKKbeta and a critical regulatory subunit named NEMO. Although we have previously demonstrated that NEMO associates with both IKKs, genetic studies reveal that only its interaction with IKKbeta is required for TNF-induced NF-kappaB activation. To determine whether NEMO and IKKalpha can form a functional IKK complex capable of activating the classical NF-kappaB pathway in the absence of IKKbeta, we utilized a panel of mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) lacking each of the IKK complex subunits. This confirmed that TNF-induced IkappaBalpha degradation absolutely requires NEMO and IKKbeta. In contrast, we consistently observed intact IkappaBalpha degradation and NF-kappaB activation in response to IL-1 in two separate cell lines lacking IKKbeta. Furthermore, exogenously expressed, catalytically inactive IKKbeta blocked TNF- but not IL-1-induced IkappaBalpha degradation in wild-type MEFs, and reconstitution of IKKalpha/beta double knockout cells with IKKalpha rescued IL-1- but not TNF-induced NF-kappaB activation. Finally, we have shown that incubation of IKKbeta-deficient MEFs with a cell-permeable peptide that blocks the interaction of NEMO with the IKKs inhibits IL-1-induced NF-kappaB activation. Our results therefore demonstrate that NEMO and IKKalpha can form a functional IKK complex that activates the classical NF-kappaB pathway in response to IL-1 but not TNF. These findings further suggest NEMO differentially regulates the fidelity of the IKK subunits activated by distinct upstream signaling pathways.
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