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This research was originally published in Journal of Biological Chemistry. Johnson, Z. I., Shapiro, I. M., & Risbud, M. V. RNA sequencing reveals a role of TonEBP transcription factor in regulation of pro-inflammatory genes in response to hyperosmolarity in healthy nucleus pulposus cells a homeostatic response?. Journal of Biological Chemistry. December 2016; Volume 291, Issue 52:pp-pp. 26686-26697. © the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.


Transcription factor tonicity-responsive enhancer-binding protein (TonEBP/NFAT5) is critical for osmo-adaptation and extracellular matrix homeostasis of nucleus pulposus (NP) cells in their hypertonic tissue niche. Recent studies implicate TonEBP signaling in inflammatory disease and rheumatoid arthritis pathogenesis. However, broader functions of TonEBP in the disc remain unknown. RNA sequencing was performed on NP cells with TonEBP knockdown under hypertonic conditions. 1140 TonEBP-dependent genes were identified and categorized using Ingenuity Pathway Analysis. Bioinformatic analysis showed enrichment of matrix homeostasis and cytokine/chemokine signaling pathways. C-C motif chemokine ligand 2 (CCL2), interleukin 6 (IL6), tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and nitric oxide synthase 2 (NOS2) were studied further. Knockdown experiments showed that TonEBP was necessary to maintain expression levels of these genes. Gain- and loss-of-function experiments and site-directed mutagenesis demonstrated that TonEBP binding to a specific site in the CCL2 promoter is required for hypertonic inducibility. Despite inhibition by dominant-negative TonEBP, IL6 and NOS2 promoters were not hypertonicity-inducible. Whole-disc response to hypertonicity was studied in an ex vivo organ culture model, using wild-type and haploinsufficient TonEBP mice. Pro-inflammatory targets were induced by hypertonicity in discs from wild-type but not TonEBP-haploinsufficient mice. Mechanistically, NF-κB activity increased with hypertonicity and was necessary for hypertonic induction of target genes IL6, TNF, and NOS2 but not CCL2 Although TonEBP maintains transcription of genes traditionally considered pro-inflammatory, it is important to note that some of these genes also serve anabolic and pro-survival roles. Therefore, in NP cells, this phenomenon may reflect a physiological adaptation to diurnal osmotic loading of the intervertebral disc.

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