Background. In vitro studies suggest that activation of the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway plays a critical role in the proliferation of tubular epithelial and myofibroblast-like cells. However, little is known of ERK activation in individual cell types in normal or diseased kidney. The aims of this study were to (1) localize ERK activation within the kidney, and (2) examine the relationship between ERK activation and cell proliferation in the injured kidney. Methods. Unilateral ureteric obstruction (UUO) was induced in groups of six Wistar rats, which were killed at 30 minutes, 6 hours, and 1, 4, or 7 days after obstruction. Activation of ERK was identified using antibodies specific for the phosphorylated form of ERK (pERK) in Western blots and immunostaining. Proliferating cells were detected using bromodeoxyuridine (BrdU). Results. Western blotting showed abundant expression of the two ERK isoforms, ERK-1 and ERK-2, in normal rat kidney. Low levels of activated ERK (pERK-2 > pERK-1) were detected in normal rat kidney by Western blotting. Immunostaining showed that ERK activation in normal kidney was largely restricted to collecting ducts in the outer medulla. Within 30 minutes of ureter obstruction, Western blotting showed a six-fold increase in ERK activation followed by a second peak (14-fold increase) on days 4 and 7. The initial peak of ERK activation was localized to medullary collecting ducts and the thick ascending limb of Henle (TALH), whereas the second peak corresponded to a progressive increase in ERK activation in dilated collecting ducts and in interstitial cells in the cortex. Proliferation of tubular epithelial cells closely followed the pattern of ERK activation, being evident first in medullary collecting ducts and TALH on day 1, and then in cortical collecting ducts from day 4. Conclusion. This study has identified a discrete pattern of ERK activation in normal rat kidney and an increase in ERK activation following obstruction. The temporal and spatial relationship in which ERK activation preceded tubular cell proliferation suggest that ERK signaling plays a key role in tubular epithelial cell proliferation in the injured kidney.
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