Background: Thirteen-lined ground squirrels (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus) experience dramatic changes in physiological and molecular parameters during winter hibernation. Notably, these animals experience reduced blood circulation during torpor, which can put numerous stresses on their hearts. The present study evaluates the role played by the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) in signal transduction during hibernation at low body temperature to evaluate signaling mechanisms. By investigating the regulation of intracellular mitogen activated protein kinase (MAPK) pathway responses, anti-apoptosis signals, downstream transcription factors, and heat shock proteins in cardiac muscle we aim to determine the correlation between upstream tyrosine phosphorylation events and downstream outcomes. Methods: Protein abundance of phosphorylated EGFR, MAPKs and downstream effector proteins were quantified using immunoblotting and Luminex_ multiplex assays. Results: Monitoring five time points over the torpor/arousal cycle, EGFR phosphorylation on T654, Y1068, Y1086 was found to increase significantly compared with euthermic control values particularly during the arousal process from torpor, whereas phosphorylation at Y1045 was reduced during torpor. Phosphorylation of intracellular MAPK targets (p-ERK 1/2, p-JNK, p-p38) also increased strongly during the early arousal stage with p-p38 levels also rising during prolonged torpor. However, of downstream MAPK effector kinases that were measured, only p-Elk-1 levels changed showing a decrease during interbout arousal (IA). Apoptosis markers revealed a strong reduction of the pro-apoptotic p-BAD protein during entrance into torpor that remained suppressed through torpor and IA. However, active caspase-9 protein rose strongly during IA. Levels of p-AKT were suppressed during the transition phases into and out of torpor. Of four heat shock proteins assessed, only HSP27 protein levels changed significantly (a 40% decrease) during torpor. Conclusion: We show evidence of EGFR phosphorylation correlating to activation of MAPK signaling and downstream p-ELK1 suppression during hibernation. We also demonstrate a reduction in p-BAD mediated pro-apoptotic signaling duringhibernation with active caspase-9 protein levels increasing only during IA. I. tridecemlineatus has natural mechanisms of tissue protection during hibernation that is largely due to cellular regulation through phosphorylation-mediated signaling cascade. We identify a possible link between EGFR and MAPK signaling via p-ERK, p-p38, and p-JNK in the cardiac muscle of these hibernating mammals that correlates with an apparent reduction in caspase-9 apoptotic signaling. This reveals a piece of the mechanism behind how these mammals are resilient to cardiac stresses during hibernation that would otherwise be damaging.

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Department of Biology

Childers, C.L. (Christine L), Tessier, S.N. (Shannon N), & Storey, K. (2019). The heart of a hibernator: EGFR and MAPK signaling in cardiac muscle during the hibernation of thirteen-lined ground squirrels, Ictidomys tridecemlineatus. PeerJ, 2019(9). doi:10.7717/peerj.7587