The protein kinase C (PKC) family of enzymes regulates cell physiology through phosphorylation of serine and threonine residues of many proteins in most cell types. Here we identify PKC-β1 and PKC-γ as isoforms that are essential for rod photoreceptor differentiation in mouse retinas. Using ex vivo retinal explants, we found that phorbol ester 12-myristate 13-acetate and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1) induced rod differentiation, as defined by opsin or Crx expression, in a PKC-dependent manner days ahead of rod development in untreated explants. PKC-β1 and PKC-γ were colocalized with proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA)-and STAT3-positive progenitors through the later differentiation period. Pharmacological or genetic inhibition of either isoform resulted in a partial reduction in the appearance of rods, whereas removing both isoforms resulted in their complete absence. Furthermore, a significant decline of STAT3 tyrosine phosphorylation was observed by activation of PKC, while inhibition of PKC resulted in an increase of phosphorylated STAT3 along with a delayed cell cycle exit of progenitors with prolonged PCNA expression. In adult retinas, IGF1 activates PI-3 kinase (PI3K), but in neonatal retinas its action is identical to the action of an PI3K inhibitor. These data unveil a novel signaling cascade that coordinates and regulates rod differentiation through specific PKC isoforms in mammals.
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