A guide to ERK dynamics, part 1: mechanisms and models.
Extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) has long been studied as a key driver of both essential cellular processes and disease. A persistent question has been how this single pathway is able to direct multiple cell behaviors, including growth, proliferation, and death. Modern biosensor studies have revealed that the temporal pattern of ERK activity is highly variable and heterogeneous, and critically, that these dynamic differences modulate cell fate. This two-part review discusses the current understanding of dynamic activity in the ERK pathway, how it regulates cellular decisions, and how these cell fates lead to tissue regulation and pathology. In part 1, we cover the optogenetic and live-cell imaging technologies that first revealed the dynamic nature of ERK, as well as current challenges in biosensor data analysis. We also discuss advances in mathematical models for the mechanisms of ERK dynamics, including receptor-level regulation, negative feedback, cooperativity, and paracrine signaling. While hurdles still remain, it is clear that higher temporal and spatial resolution provide mechanistic insights into pathway circuitry. Exciting new algorithms and advanced computational tools enable quantitative measurements of single-cell ERK activation, which in turn inform better models of pathway behavior. However, the fact that current models still cannot fully recapitulate the diversity of ERK responses calls for a deeper understanding of network structure and signal transduction in general.
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