Inflammatory cytokines cause tissue dysfunction. We previously reported that retinal inflammation down-regulates rhodopsin expression and impairs visual function by an unknown mechanism. Here, we demonstrate that rhodopsin levels were preserved by suppressor of cytokine signaling 3 (SOCS3), a negative feedback regulator of STAT3 activation. SOCS3 was expressed mainly in photoreceptor cells in the retina. In the SOCS3-deficient retinas, rhodopsin protein levels dropped sooner, and the reduction was more profound than in the wild type. Visual dysfunction, measured by electroretinogram, was prolonged in retina-specific SOCS3 conditional knockout mice. Visual dysfunction and decreased rhodopsin levels both correlated with increased STAT3 activation enhanced by SOCS3 deficiency. Interleukin 6, one of the inflammatory cytokines found during retinal inflammation, activated STAT3 and decreased rhodopsin protein in adult retinal explants. This was enhanced by inhibiting SOCS3 function in vitro, indicating that rhodopsin reduction was not a secondary effect in the mutant mice. Interestingly, in the inflamed SOCS3-deficient adult retina, rhodopsin decreased post-transcriptionally at least partly through ubiquitin-proteasome-dependent degradation accelerated by STAT3 activation and not transcriptionally as in the developing retina, on which we reported previously. A STAT3-dependent E3 ubiquitin ligase, Ubr1, was responsible for rhodopsin degradation and was up-regulated in the inflamed SOCS3-deficient retinas. These results indicate that in wild-type animals, a decrease in rhodopsin during inflammation is minimized by endogenous SOCS3. However, when STAT3 activation exceeds some threshold beyond the compensatory activity of endogenous SOCS3, rhodopsin levels decrease. These findings suggest SOCS3 as a potential therapeutic target molecule for protecting photoreceptor cell function during inflammation.
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