The differentiation of endometrial stromal cells into decidual cells, termed decidualization, is an integral step in the establishment of pregnancy. The mitogen-activated protein kinase homolog, WNK lysine deficient protein kinase 1 (WNK1), is activated downstream of epidermal growth factor receptor during decidualization. Primary human endometrial stromal cells (HESCs) were subjected to small interfering RNA knockdown of WNK1 followed by in vitro decidualization. This abrogated expression of the decidual marker genes, insulin like growth factor binding protein 1 (IGFBP1) and prolactin (PRL), and prevented adoption of decidual cell morphology. Analysis of the WNK1-dependent transcriptome by RNA-Seq demonstrated that WNK1 regulates the expression of 1858 genes during decidualization. Gene ontology and upstream regulator pathway analysis showed that WNK1 regulates cell migration, differentiation, and proliferation. WNK1 was required for many of the gene expression changes that drive decidualization, including the induction of the inflammatory cytokines, C-C motif chemokine ligand 8 (CCL8), interleukin 1 beta (IL1B), and interleukin 15 (IL15), and the repression of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) pathway genes, including early growth response 2 (EGR2), SMAD family member 3 (SMAD3), integrin subunit alpha 2 (ITGA2), integrin subunit alpha 4 (ITGA4), and integrin subunit beta 3 (ITGB3). In addition to abrogating decidualization, WNK1 knockdown decreased the migration and proliferation of HESCs. Furthermore, mitogen-activated protein kinase 7 (MAPK7), a known downstream target of WNK1, was activated during decidualization in a WNK1-dependent manner. Small interfering RNA knockdown of MAPK7 demonstrated that MAPK7 regulates a subset of WNK1-regulated genes and controls the migration and proliferation of HESCs. These results indicate that WNK1 and MAPK7 promote migration and proliferation during decidualization and regulate the expression of inflammatory cytokines and TGF-beta pathway genes in HESCs.
WNK1 and MAPK7 signaling are required for multiple decidual cell functions, including proliferation, migration, induction of inflammatory cytokines, and repression of TGF-beta pathway genes.