The primary function of the vascular smooth muscle cell (SMC) is contraction for which SMCs express a selective repertoire of genes (eg, SM alpha-actin, SM myosin heavy chain [SMMHC], myocardin) that ultimately define the SMC from other muscle cell types. Moreover, the SMC exhibits extensive phenotypic diversity and plasticity, which play an important role during normal development, repair of vascular injury, and in vascular disease states. Diverse signals modulate ion channel activity in the sarcolemma of SMCs, resulting in altered intracellular calcium (Ca) signaling, activation of multiple intracellular signaling cascades, and SMC contraction or relaxation, a process known as "excitation-contraction coupling" (EC-coupling). Over the past 5 years, exciting new studies have shown that the same signals that regulate EC-coupling in SMCs are also capable of regulating SMC-selective gene expression programs, a new paradigm coined "excitation-transcription coupling" (ET-coupling). This article reviews recent progress in our understanding of the mechanisms by which ET-coupling selectively coordinates the expression of distinct gene subsets in SMCs by disparate transcription factors, including CREB, NFAT, and myocardin, via selective kinases. For example, L-type voltage-gated Ca2+ channels modulate SMC differentiation marker gene expression, eg, SM alpha-actin and SMMHC, via Rho kinase and myocardin and also regulate c-fos gene expression independently via CaMK. In addition, we discuss the potential role of IK channels and TRPC in ET-coupling as potential mediators of SMC phenotypic modulation, ie, negatively regulate SMC differentiation marker genes, in vascular disease.
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