The Keap1-Nrf2 system is the major regulatory pathway of cytoprotective gene expression against oxidative and/or electrophilic stresses. Keap1 acts as a stress sensor protein in this system. While Keap1 constitutively suppresses Nrf2 activity under unstressed conditions, oxidants or electrophiles provoke the repression of Keap1 activity, inducing the Nrf2 activation. However, the precise molecular mechanisms behind the liberation of Nrf2 from Keap1 repression in the presence of stress remain to be elucidated. We hypothesized that oxidative and electrophilic stresses induce the nuclear accumulation of Nrf2 by affecting the Keap1-mediated rapid turnover of Nrf2, since such accumulation was diminished by the protein synthesis inhibitor cycloheximide. While both the Cys273 and Cys288 residues of Keap1 are required for suppressing Nrf2 nuclear accumulation, treatment of cells with electrophiles or mutation of these cysteine residues to alanine did not affect the association of Keap1 with Nrf2 either in vivo or in vitro. Rather, these treatments impaired the Keap1-mediated proteasomal degradation of Nrf2. These results support the contention that Nrf2 protein synthesized de novo after exposure to stress accumulates in the nucleus by bypassing the Keap1 gate and that the sensory mechanism of oxidative and electrophilic stresses is closely linked to the degradation mechanism of Nrf2.
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