There is a genetic contribution to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), but the identification of candidate genes has been elusive.
Ethanol may cause FASD in part by decreasing the adhesion of the developmentally critical L1 cell adhesion molecule through interactions with an alcohol binding pocket on the extracellular domain.
Pharmacologic inhibition or genetic knockdown of ERK2 did not alter L1 adhesion, but markedly decreased ethanol inhibition of L1 adhesion in NIH/3T3 cells and NG108-15 cells.
Likewise, leucine replacement of S1248, an ERK2 substrate on the L1 cytoplasmic domain, did not decrease L1 adhesion, but abolished ethanol inhibition of L1 adhesion. Stable transfection of NIH/3T3 cells with human L1 resulted in clonal cell lines in which L1 adhesion was consistently sensitive or insensitive to ethanol for more than a decade. ERK2 activity and S1248 phosphorylation were greater in ethanol-sensitive NIH/3T3 clonal cell lines than in their ethanol-insensitive counterparts.
Ethanol-insensitive cells became ethanol sensitive after increasing ERK2 activity by transfection with a constitutively active MAP kinase kinase 1.
Finally, embryos from two substrains of C57BL mice that differ in susceptibility to ethanol teratogenesis showed corresponding differences in MAPK activity.
Our data suggest that ERK2 phosphorylation of S1248 modulates ethanol inhibition of L1 adhesion by inside-out signaling and that differential regulation of ERK2 signaling might contribute to genetic susceptibility to FASD. Moreover, identification of a specific locus that regulates ethanol sensitivity, but not L1 function, might facilitate the rational design of drugs that block ethanol neurotoxicity.
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