Both the extracellular matrix and growth factors jointly regulate cell cycle progression via a complex network of signaling pathways. Applying quantitative assays and analysis, we demonstrate here that concurrent stimulation of Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells with fibronectin (Fn) and insulin elicits a DNA synthesis response that reveals a synergy far more complex than a simple additive enhancement of response magnitude. CHO cell adhesion to higher Fn density shifts the sensitivity of the DNA synthesis response to insulin concentration from smoothly graded to sharply ‘switch-like’ and dramatically decreases the insulin concentration required for half-maximal response by about 1000-fold. Conversely, treatment with insulin has a milder and less complex effect on the response to varying Fn concentrations. Governing this DNA synthesis response is a common requirement for a transient, cell area-independent extracellular signal-regulated kinase 2 (ERK2) signal. Moreover, we show that the time-integrated value of this ‘pulse’ signal provides an appropriate metric for quantifying the dependence of DNA synthesis on the degree of ERK2 activation. Indeed, in the absence of insulin, the adhesion-mediated response is linearly proportional to ERK2 activation over a broad range of stimulatory Fn and MEK inhibitor amounts. However, in the presence of both Fn and insulin, total integrated ERK2 activity (the sum of Fn- and insulin-mediated signals) no longer serves as a predictor of DNA synthesis, demonstrating that the signaling crosstalk underlying response synergism does not converge at ERK2 activation. Instead, adhesion to higher Fn density enhances insulin stimulation of DNA synthesis, not by increasing insulin-mediated ERK2 activation, but via parallel elevation of at least one other insulin-mediated signal such as IRS-1 phosphorylation.

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