MAP kinase modules propagate diverse extracellular signals to downstream effectors. The two dual phosphorylation reactions catalyzed by the modules are thought to control the switch behavior of the pathway. Here we review recent approaches to understand these pathways through signal-to-response studies in cells and in vitro. These data are reconciled with physical models as well as predictions made on mathematical and theoretical grounds. Biochemical analysis has shown recently that the dual phosphorylation reactions catalyzed by MAP kinase modules are sequential at both levels of the cascade. The observed order of phosphorylation events suggests an excursion from the Ser/Thr kinase activity of the MAP3K into Tyr kinase activity of the central dual specificity MAP2K. How the order of events might be encoded in the structures and interactions is discussed. The ordered mechanism confirms predictions that reactions should be sequential to generate the steep signal-to-response curves and delayed responses observed in cells.
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