The MAPKs are important transducers of growth and stress stimuli in virtually all eukaryotic cell types. In the mammalian heart, MAPK signaling pathways have been hypothesized to regulate myocyte growth in response to developmental signals or physiologic and pathologic stimuli. Here we generated cardiac-specific transgenic mice expressing dominant-negative mutants of p38α, MKK3, or MKK6. Remarkably, attenuation of cardiac p38 activity produced a progressive growth response and myopathy in the heart that correlated with the degree of enzymatic inhibition. Moreover, dominant-negative p38α, MKK3, and MKK6 transgenic mice each showed enhanced cardiac hypertrophy following aortic banding, Ang II infusion, isoproterenol infusion, or phenylephrine infusion for 14 days. A mechanism underlying this enhanced-growth profile was suggested by the observation that dominant-negative p38α directly augmented nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFAT) transcriptional activity and its nuclear translocation. In vivo, NFAT-dependent luciferase reporter transgenic mice showed enhanced activation in the presence of the dominant-negative p38α transgene before and after the onset of cardiac hypertrophy. More significantly, genetic disruption of the calcineurin αβ gene rescued hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and depressed functional capacity observed in p38-inhibited mice. Collectively, these observations indicate that reduced p38 signaling in the heart promotes myocyte growth through a mechanism involving enhanced calcineurin-NFAT signaling.
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