TNF Receptor Associated Factor 2 (TRAF2) is an adaptor protein that transduces signals following ligation of certain cytokine receptors including those binding TNF. It was first identified together with TRAF1 as a component of TNF receptor-2 and then TNF receptor-1 (TNFR1) signalling complexes (Rothe et al., 1994; Shu et al., 1996). TRAF2, like most other TRAFs, contains a RING domain, several zinc fingers, a TRAF-N, and a conserved TRAF-C domain which is responsible for oligomerisation and receptor binding through its MATH region (Takeuchi et al., 1996; Uren and Vaux, 1996).

RING domains are nearly always associated with ubiquitin E3 ligase activity (Shi and Kehrl, 2003) and TRAF2 can promote ubiquitylation of RIPK1 in TNFR1 signalling complexes (TNFR1-SC) (Wertz et al., 2004). However TRAF2 recruits E3 ligases such as cIAPs to TNFR1-SC and these have also been shown to be able to ubiquitylate RIPK1 and regulate TNF signalling (Dynek et al., 2010; Mahoney et al., 2008; Varfolomeev et al., 2008; Vince et al., 2009). This makes it difficult to unambiguously determine the role of the E3 ligase activity of TRAF2.

Activation of JNK and NF-κB by TNF is reduced in cells from Traf2-/- mice while only JNK signalling was affected in lymphocytes from transgenic mice that express a dominant negative (DN) form of TRAF2 that lacks the RING domain (Lee et al., 1997; Yeh et al., 1997). Traf2-/-Traf5-/- mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) have a pronounced defect in activation of NF-κB by TNF, suggesting that absence of TRAF2 can be compensated by TRAF5 (Tada et al., 2001). Although activation of NF-κB was restored in Traf2-/-Traf5-/- cells by re-expression of wild type TRAF2, it was not restored when the cells were reconstituted with TRAF2 point mutants that could not bind cIAPs (Vince et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2010). These data, together with a wealth of different lines of evidence showing that cIAPs are critical E3 ligases required for TNF-induced canonical NF-κB (Blackwell et al., 2013; Haas et al., 2009; Silke, 2011), support the idea that the main function of TRAF2 in TNF-induced NF-κB is to recruit cIAPs to the TNFR1-SC. However, it remains possible that the RING of TRAF2 plays another function, such as in activating JNK and protecting cells from TNF-induced cell death (Vince et al., 2009; Zhang et al., 2010). Furthermore it has been shown that TRAF2 can K48-ubiquitylate caspase-8 to set the threshold for TRAIL or Fas induced cell death (Gonzalvez et al., 2012). Moreover, TRAF2 inhibits non-canonical NF-κB signalling (Grech et al., 2004; Zarnegar et al., 2008) and this function requires the RING domain of TRAF2 to induce proteosomal degradation of NIK (Vince et al., 2009). However, structural and in vitro analyses indicate that, unlike TRAF6, the RING domain of TRAF2 is unable to bind E2 conjugating enzymes (Yin et al., 2009), and is therefore unlikely to have intrinsic E3 ligase activity.

Sphingosine-1-phosphate (S1P) is a pleiotropic sphingolipid mediator that regulates proliferation, differentiation, cell trafficking and vascular development (Pitson, 2011). S1P is generated by sphingosine kinase 1 and 2 (SPHK1 and SPHK2) (Kohama et al., 1998; Liu et al., 2000). Extracellular S1P mainly acts by binding to its five G protein-coupled receptors S1P1-5 (Hla and Dannenberg, 2012). However, some intracellular roles have been suggested for S1P, including the blocking of the histone deacetylases, HDAC1/2 (Hait et al., 2009) and the induction of apoptosis through interaction with BAK and BAX (Chipuk et al., 2012).

Recently, it was suggested that the RING domain of TRAF2 requires S1P as a co-factor for its E3 ligase activity (Alvarez et al., 2010). Alvarez and colleagues proposed that SPHK1 but not SPHK2 is activated by TNF and phosphorylates sphingosine to S1P which in turn binds to the RING domain of TRAF2 and serves as an essential co-factor that was missing in the experiments of Yin et al. Alvarez and colleagues, observed that in the absence of SPHK1, TNF-induced NF-κB activation was completely abolished.

Although we know a lot about TRAF2, there are still important gaps particularly with regard to cell type specificity and in vivo function of TRAF2. Moreover, despite the claims that SPHK1 and its product, S1P, are required for TRAF2 to function as a ubiquitin ligase, the responses of Traf2-/- and Sphk1-/- cells to TNF were not compared. Therefore, we undertook an analysis of TRAF2 and SPHK1 function in TNF signalling in a number of different tissues.

Surprisingly, we found that neither TRAF2 nor SPHK1 are required for TNF mediated canonical NF-κB and MAPK signalling in macrophages. However, MEFs, murine dermal fibroblasts (MDFs) and keratinocytes required TRAF2 but not SPHK1 for full strength TNF signalling. In these cell types, absence of TRAF2 caused a delay in TNF-induced activation of NF-κB and MAPK, and sensitivity to killing by TNF was increased. Absence of TRAF2 in keratinocytes in vivo resulted in psoriasis-like epidermal hyperplasia and skin inflammation. Unlike TNF-dependent genetic inflammatory skin conditions, such as IKK2 epidermal knock-out (Pasparakis et al., 2002) and the cpdm mutant (Gerlach et al., 2011), the onset of inflammation was only delayed, and not prevented by deletion of TNF. This early TNF-dependent inflammation is caused by excessive apoptotic but not necroptotic cell death and could be prevented by deletion of Casp8. We observed constitutive activation of NIK and non-canonical NF-κB in Traf2-/- keratinocytes which caused production of inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. We were able to reverse this inflammatory phenotype by simultaneously deleting both Tnf and Nfkb2 genes. Our results highlight the important role TRAF2 plays to protect keratinocytes from cell death and to down-regulate inflammatory responses and support the idea that intrinsic defects in keratinocytes can initiate psoriasis-like skin inflammation.