Methylmercury (MeHg) modifies cellular proteins via their thiol groups in a process referred to as "S-mercuration", potentially resulting in modulation of the cellular signal transduction pathway. We examined whether low-dose MeHg could affect Akt signaling involved in cell survival. Exposure of human neuroblastoma SH-SY5Y cells of up to 2 μM MeHg phosphorylated Akt and its downstream signal molecule CREB, presumably due to inactivation of PTEN through S-mercuration. As a result, the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2 was up-regulated by MeHg. The activation of Akt/CREB/Bcl-2 signaling mediated by MeHg was, at least in part, linked to cellular defence because either pretreatment with wortmannin to block PI3K/Akt signaling or knockdown of Bcl-2 enhanced MeHg-mediated cytotoxicity. In contrast, increasing concentrations of MeHg disrupted Akt/CREB/Bcl-2 signaling. This phenomenon was attributed to S-mercuration of CREB through Cys286 rather than Akt. These results suggest that although MeHg is an apoptosis-inducing toxicant, this environmental electrophile is able to activate the cell survival signal transduction pathway at lower concentrations prior to apoptotic cell death.
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