Ceramide has been proposed as a second messenger molecule implicated in a variety of biological processes. It has recently been reported that ceramide activates stress-activated protein kinase (SAPK, also known as c- Jun NH2-terminal kinase JNK), a subfamily member of mitogen-activated protein kinase superfamily molecules and that the ceramide/SAPK/JNK signaling pathway is required for stress-induced apoptosis. However, the molecular mechanism by which ceramide induces SAPK/JNK activation is unknown. Here we show that TAK1, a member of the mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase kinase family, is activated by treatment of cells with agents and stresses that induce an increase in ceramide. Ceramide itself stimulated the kinase activity of TAK1. Expression of a constitutively active form of TAK1 resulted in activation of SAPK/JNK and SEK1/MKK4, a direct activator of SAPK/JNK. Furthermore, expression of a kinase-negative form of TAK1 interfered with the activation of SAPK/JNK induced by ceramide. These results indicate that TAK1 may function as a mediator of ceramide signaling to SAPK/JNK activation.
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