The function and regulation of keratin 8 (K8) and 18 (K18), intermediate filament (IF) proteins of the liver, are not fully understood. We employed the liver damage induced by microcystin-LR (MC-LR), a liver-specific inhibitor of type-1 and type-2A protein phosphatases, in normal and in keratin assembly-incompetent mouse strains as a model to elucidate the roles of IF phosphorylation in situ. The mouse strains used were wild-type (wt) mice and mice with abnormal filament assembly, caused by a targeted null mutation of the K8 gene or caused by expression of a point-mutated dominant negative human K18. In vivo 32P-labeled wt mice, subsequently injected with a lethal dose of MC-LR, showed hyperphosphorylation, disassembly, and reorganization of K8/K18, in particular K18, indicating high phosphate turnover on liver keratins in situ. At lethal doses, the keratin assembly- incompetent mice displayed liver lesions faster than wt mice, as indicated histopathologically and by liver-specific plasma enzyme elevations. The histological changes included centrilobular hemorrhage in all mouse strains. The assembly-incompetent mice showed a marked vacuolization of periportal hepatocytes. Indistinguishable MC-LR-induced reorganization of microfilaments was observed in all mice, indicating that this effect on microfilaments is not dependent on the presence of functional K8/K18 networks. At sublethal doses of MC-LR, all animals had the same potential to recover from the liver damage. Our study shows that K8/K18 filament assembly is regulated in vivo by serine phosphorylation. The absence or occurrence of defective K8/K18 filaments render animals more prone to liver damage, which supports the previously suggested roles of keratin IFs in maintenance of structural integrity.
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