Activation of mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase (also known as extracellular-signal-regulated kinase, or ERK) by growth factors can trigger either cell growth or differentiation. The intracellular signals that couple growth factors to MAP kinase may determine the different effects of growth factors: for example, transient activation of MAP kinase by epidermal growth factor stimulates proliferation of PC12 cells, whereas they differentiate in response to nerve growth factor, which acts partly by inducing a sustained activation of MAP kinase. Here we show that activation of MAP kinase by nerve growth factor involves two distinct pathways: the initial activation of MAP kinase requires the small G protein Ras, but its activation is sustained by the small G protein Rap1. Rap1 is activated by CRK adaptor proteins and the guanine-nucleotide-exchange factor C3G, and forms a stable complex with B- Raf, an activator of MAP kinase. Rap1 is required for at least two indices of neuronal differentiation by nerve growth factor: electrical excitability and the induction of neuron-specific genes. We propose that the activation of Rapl by C3G represents a common mechanism to induce sustained activation of the MAP kinase cascade in cells that express B-Raf.
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