Single-cell dynamics and variability of MAPK activity in a yeast differentiation pathway

Patrick Conlon, Rita Gelin-Licht, Ambhighainath Ganesan, Jin Zhang, Andre Levchenko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


In response to pheromones, yeast cells activate a MAPK pathway to direct processes important for mating, including gene induction, cell-cycle arrest, and polarized cell growth. Although a variety of assays have been able to elucidate signaling activities at multiple steps in the pathway, measurements of MAPK activity during the pheromone response have remained elusive, and our understanding of single-cell signaling behavior is incomplete. Using a yeast-optimized FRET-based mammalian Erk-activity reporter to monitor Fus3 and Kss1 activity in live yeast cells, we demonstrate that overall mating MAPK activity exhibits distinct temporal dynamics, rapid reversibility, and a graded dose dependence around the KD of the receptor, where phenotypic transitions occur. The complex dose response was found to be largely a consequence of two feedbacks involving cyclin-mediated scaffold phosphorylation and Fus3 autoregulation. Distinct cell cycle-dependent response patterns comprised a large portion of the cell-to-cell variability at each dose, constituting the major source of extrinsic noise in coupling activity to downstream gene-expression responses. Additionally, we found diverse spatial MAPK activity patterns to emerge over time in cells undergoing default, gradient, and true mating responses. Furthermore, ramping up and rapid loss of activity were closely associated with zygote formation in mating-cell pairs, supporting a role for elevated MAPK activity in successful cell fusion and morphogenic reorganization. Altogether, these findings present a detailed view of spatiotemporal MAPK activity during the pheromone response, elucidating its role in mediating complex long-term developmental fates in a unicellular differentiation system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E5896-E5905
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number40
StatePublished - Oct 4 2016


  • Cell signaling
  • Fus3
  • MAPK dynamics
  • Mating pathway
  • Yeast

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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