Pertussis toxin (PT) is a known mitogen for T lymphocytes. The mechanism by which the toxin stimulates proliferation has remained obscure and paradoxical because, in some types of cells, the toxin also inhibits growth factor-mediated signal transduction. It has previously been shown that the adenosine-diphosphate ribosyltransferase activity of the toxin is not required to produce the mitogenic effect. A biochemical explanation for the mitogenic activity has therefore remained obscure. We investigated the biochemical basis for the mitogenic activity of PT by using the transformed human T cell line, Jurkat. PT stimulated a rapid rise in cytosolic-free [Ca2+] from both intra- and extracellular sources. This was associated with an increase in the cellular diacylglycerol and inositol triphosphate levels with a concomitant decrease in the levels of phosphatidylinositol-4-phosphate and phosphatidylinositol-4,5-bisphosphate. The half-maximal effective dose of PT was 1.7 nM. PT also stimulated the production of interleukin 2. Only the holotoxin or B-oligomer (the presumptive membrane-binding subunit) was capable of stimulating an increase in [Ca2+] in these cells. This activity of PT mimicked that of some anti-T3-T cell antigen receptor complex monoclonal antibodies that also stimulate increases in the second messengers, diacylglycerol and Ca2+. The effects of PT and anti-T3 complex antibody were identical and not additive in Jurkat cells, suggesting that both agents were activating the same signal transduction pathway. These data provide a mechanistic explanation for the mitogenic effects of PT and suggest that the toxin may be interacting with a specific receptor in the T lymphocyte plasma membrane.

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