In the present work, nerve growth factor (NGF) was used in combination with the calcium ionophore, ionomycin or dibutyryl cyclic AMP (dbcAMP), to study the connection between neuronal differentiation and extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) activation of PC12 rat pheochromocytoma cells expressing a dominant negative, Ha-Ras Asn17 protein. Due to the block of endogenous Ras activity, neurite outgrowth in response to NGF is completely inhibited in these cells. However, this blockade can be bypassed by combined treatment with NGF plus ionomycin or NGF plus dbcAMP. The mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)/ERK kinase inhibitor, PD98059, proved to be insufficient in inhibiting the neurite outgrowth under these conditions. Moreover, although both long-term ERK activation and nuclear translocation of ERKs are believed to be key events in neuronal differentiation, neither detectable ERK phosphorylation, nor nuclear translocation of these enzymes, occurred upon combination treatments in our experimental system. However, the neuritogenesis induced by either the combination of NGF/ionomycin or NGF/dbcAMP was inhibited by the Trk inhibitor, K252a. Ras-independent pathways, originating from the NGF receptor, can thus synergize with second messenger analogues bypassing the ERK cascade but leading to the same biological result - neurite formation.
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