A balance between cell proliferation and apoptosis is important for regulating normal liver function. Proteins of the transforming growth factor-β superfamily are known to be important mediators of apoptosis in the liver. In this study we demonstrate that activin A potently induces apoptotic cell death in a hepatoma cell line, HepG2 cells. To determine the roles of activin receptors and downstream signaling proteins in activin A-induced apoptosis in these cells, the activin signaling pathway was analyzed using the transcription of an activin-responsive reporter gene, p3TP-Lux, as an assay. Although individual activin receptors had little effect on transcriptional activity, coexpression of an activin type I receptor and a type II receptor significantly increased both basal and activin-induced transcriptional activation, with the combination of receptors IB and IIB being the most potent. Similarly, expression of individual Smad proteins had only a modest effect on reporter gene activity, but the combination of Smad2 and Smad4 strongly stimulated transcription. Activin signaling induced a rapid relocation of Smad2 to the nucleus, as determined using a green fluorescence protein-Smad2 fusion protein. In contrast, green fluorescence protein-Smad4 remained localized to the cytoplasm unless it was coexpressed with Smad2. In agreement with the transcriptional response assays, overexpression or suppression of activin signaling components in HepG2 cells altered apoptosis. Overexpression of receptors IB and IIB or Smad proteins 2 and 4 stimulated apoptosis, whereas dominant negative mutant forms of the activin type lib receptor or Smad2 blocked activin-stimulated apoptosis. These studies suggest that signaling from the cell surface to the nucleus through Smad proteins is a required component of the activin A-induced cell death process in liver cells.
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