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BACKGROUND: Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) production by macrophages plays an important role in the host response to infection. TNF-alpha gene expression in RAW 264.7 macrophages is predominantly regulated at the translational level. A key element in this regulation is an AU-rich (AUR) sequence located in the 3' untranslated region (UTR) of TNF mRNA. In unstimulated macrophages, the translation of TNF mRNA is inhibited via this AUR sequence. Upon stimulation with LPS, this repression is overcome and translation occurs. In this study, we attempted to identify cellular proteins that interact with the AUR sequence and thereby regulate TNF mRNA translation. MATERIALS AND METHODS: RNA probes corresponding to portions of TNF mRNA 3' UTR were synthesized. These labeled RNAs were incubated with cytoplasmic extracts of either unstimulated or lipopolysaccharides (LPS)-stimulated RAW 264.7 macrophages. The RNA/protein complexes formed were analyzed by gel retardation. Ultraviolet (UV) cross-linking experiments were performed to determine the molecular weight of the proteins involved in the complexes. RESULTS: TNF mRNA AUR sequence formed two complexes (1 and 2) of distinct electrophoretic mobilities. While the formation of complex 1 was independent of the activation state of the macrophages from which the extracts were obtained, complex 2 was detected only using cytoplasmic extracts from LPS-stimulated macrophages. Upon UV cross-linking, two proteins, of 50 and 80 kD, respectively, were capable of binding the UAR sequence. The 50-kD protein is likely to be part of the LPS-inducible complex 2, since its binding ability was enhanced upon LPS stimulation. Interestingly, complex 2 formation was also triggered by SendaÃ¯ virus infection, another potent activator of TNF mRNA translation in RAW 264.7 macrophages. In contrast, complex 2 was not detected with cytoplasmic extracts obtained from B and T cell lines which are unable to produce TNF in response to LPS. Protein tyrosine phosphorylation is required for LPS-induced TNF mRNA translation. Remarkably, the protein tyrosine phosphorylation inhibitor herbimycin A abolished LPS-induced complex 2 formation. Complex 2 was already detectable after 0.5 hr of LPS treatment and was triggered by a minimal LPS dose of 10 pg/ml. CONCLUSIONS: The tight correlation between TNF production and the formation of an LPS-inducible cytoplasmic complex suggests that this complex plays a role in the translational regulation of TNF mRNA.