MAPK signaling

The mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathways are signaling cascades that regulate fundamental cellular processes such as proliferation, differentiation, survival and apoptosis. They transmit signals from cell surface receptors to the nucleus, influencing gene expression and cellular responses.

MAPK Signaling

The highly conserved MAPK pathways are integral to cellular communication and play a critical role in a wide range of physiological and pathological processes, including embryonic growth and development, immune responses and cancer progression. Acting as central regulators, MAPK signaling pathways coordinate and control numerous cellular functions, ensuring proper cellular responses and maintaining homeostasis.

There are three main MAPK signaling cascades: the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) pathway, the c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) pathway and the p38 MAPK pathway. These cascades differ in their activation mechanisms and downstream targets, allowing them to regulate various cellular processes.

The ERK pathway is typically activated by growth factors and promotes cell growth and division. For example, activation of the ERK cascade is crucial for proper limb bud initiation, outgrowth, patterning and differentiation during vertebrate limb development. It transmits signals from growth factors, such as fibroblast growth factors (FGFs), to the nucleus, regulating gene expression and orchestrating the complex processes of proliferation, migration and differentiation that form the developing limbs. (1)

Both the JNK and p38 pathways are activated in response to stress signals, but they have distinct downstream effects and regulate various aspects of cellular stress responses. JNK is primarily activated by signals such as DNA damage, oxidative stress, UV radiation and inflammatory cytokines. (2) On the other hand, p38 can be activated by a broader range of stress signals, including inflammatory cytokines, environmental stressors, heat shock, osmotic stress, oxidative stress and cellular stress. (3)

The JNK pathway plays a prominent role in programmed cell death (apoptosis) and immune responses. Activation of JNK triggers a cascade of molecular events that leads to the initiation of apoptosis. Additionally, JNK can modulate the activity of c-Jun, a transcription factor involved in the expression of genes related to cell survival and death. In immune responses, JNK can regulate the production of cytokines and the activation of immune cells. (2)

The p38 pathway, on the other hand, is closely associated with inflammatory responses, cell differentiation and the cellular response to stress. It regulates the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and mediates inflammatory signaling pathways. It also influences cell fate decisions, such as cell differentiation, and helps cells adapt and respond to stressful conditions. (3)

While the JNK and p38 pathways have distinct downstream effects, there can be crosstalk and interplay between them. They can share common upstream regulators and signaling components, allowing for cross-regulation and coordination in cellular stress responses. The interplay between these pathways can contribute to the overall cellular response to stress signals, with the relative activation of each pathway dependent on the specific context and stress conditions. (4)

Overactive MAPK signaling is associated with uncontrolled cell growth, survival, and proliferation. For example, gain-of-function mutations in Ras GTPase genes, which encode molecular switches that transmit signals to MAPK pathways, are found in many cancers. These mutations lead to constitutive activation of RAS, sustained ERK signaling and tumor growth. (5)

Conversely, impaired MAPK signaling can lead to compromised cellular responses, including impaired cell differentiation and developmental abnormalities. For example, deficiencies or mutations in RAS GTPases, have been associated with various disorders, such as Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by developmental delays and heart defects. (6)

The dysregulation of MAPK signaling pathways in various diseases has prompted extensive research into targeted therapies. Understanding the components and mechanisms of MAPK signaling has led to the development of drugs that specifically inhibit or modulate these pathways. For example, in certain types of cancer, targeted therapies such as BRAF and MEK inhibitors have shown promising results by blocking aberrant activation of the MAPK pathway and suppressing tumor growth. (7)



1. Xu X, Weinstein M, Li C, Deng C. Fibroblast growth factor receptors (FGFRs) and their roles in limb development. Cell Tissue Res. 1999 Apr;296(1):33-43. doi: 10.1007/s004410051264. PMID: 10199963.

2. Minden A, Karin M. Regulation and function of the JNK subgroup of MAP kinases. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1997 Oct 24;1333(2):F85-104. doi: 10.1016/s0304-419x(97)00018-8. PMID: 9395283.

3. Cuenda A, Rousseau S. p38 MAP-kinases pathway regulation, function and role in human diseases. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2007 Aug;1773(8):1358-75. doi: 10.1016/j.bbamcr.2007.03.010. Epub 2007 Mar 24. PMID: 17481747.

4. Staples CJ, Owens DM, Maier JV, Cato AC, Keyse SM. Cross-talk between the p38alpha and JNK MAPK pathways mediated by MAP kinase phosphatase-1 determines cellular sensitivity to UV radiation. J Biol Chem. 2010 Aug 20;285(34):25928-40. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M110.117911.

5. Santarpia L, Lippman SM, El-Naggar AK. Targeting the MAPK-RAS-RAF signaling pathway in cancer therapy. Expert Opin Ther Targets. 2012 Jan;16(1):103-19. doi: 10.1517/14728222.2011.645805.

6. Tartaglia M, Gelb BD. Disorders of dysregulated signal traffic through the RAS-MAPK pathway: phenotypic spectrum and molecular mechanisms. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2010 Dec;1214:99-121. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2010.05790.x.

7. Flaherty KT, et al. Inhibition of mutated, activated BRAF in metastatic melanoma. N Engl J Med. 2010 Aug 26;363(9):809-19. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1002011.