- Identification of a physiological substrate of Abcg2 and its potential role in stem cells (2011)
- Stem cells are often referred to as potential candidates for the treatment of different pathologies. Their ability to differentiate into various tissue specific cell types offers the possibility to engineer cell systems or organs for replacement. One of the main questions in stem cell biology is how stemness properties are regulated and to what extend this regulation is intrinsic or conveyed by the direct microenvironment (‘niche’). In order to elucidate such regulatory processes, it is informative to analyze processes or molecules that are shared between different stem cell populations. One such molecule that is expressed on a wide range of different embryonic and adult as well as tumor stem cells is the ABC transporter Abcg2. ABC transporters in general are transmembrane proteins that actively extrude endo- and exotoxins as well as xenobiotics, thereby protecting cells and organs. Additionally, ABC transporters are responsible for drug resistance in many cancers. A well-described characteristic of stem cells expressing Abcg2 is the formation of the ‘side population’ (SP) phenotype: An active Abcg2 transporter mediates the efflux of a particular fluorescent dye that is taken up by all cells, thus leading to a less brightly stained population. This phenomenon is widely used to characterize and isolate the most primitive stem cell subpopulation from embryonic and adult tissues, including tumors. Besides its role as toxin transporter little is known about the function of Abcg2 in stem cells. This is mainly due to the fact that its physiological substrate in stem cells remains unknown. The identification of such substrates is therefore of high interest because it would directly link the activity of ABC transporters to regulatory mechanisms in stem cell biology. In the present study we wanted to test the hypothesis that the sphingolipid ceramide is a physiological substrate of the ABC transporter Abcg2. Sphingolipids are potent second messengers and are known to have regulatory functions in stem cells. In particular, the sphingolipid ceramide is described as a mediator of controlled cell death and inducer of differentiation. It is suggested that stem cells need to keep their intracellular ceramide content at low levels in order to prevent apoptosis or differentiation. We propose that Abcg2 and ceramide interact and that this interaction leads to changes in the absolute or relative amounts of ceramide. This in turn influences basic stem cell functions such as self renewal and differentiation. We show that Abcg2 prevents cells from accumulating fluorescence labeled ceramide. Furthermore, exogenously applied ceramides inhibit the transport activity of Abcg2, measured by a decrease of the side population phenotype. This inhibitory effect is consistent with a competitive inhibition mechanism. Additionally, we show that active Abcg2 can increase the ceramide concentration in cell culture supernatant. Finally we demonstrate that Abcg2 protects from ceramide induced cytotoxicity in human cell lines. In summary, these in vitro results strongly suggest that Abcg2 has the ability to regulate ceramide levels. Murine hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) are the best characterized adult stem cell system so far. By using 7-colour fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) we established the purification of the most primitive HSCs, reflected by their high engraftment capability when transplanted to lethally irradiated mice. By using this sorted cell populations it was in addition possible to establish a system to reproducibly manipulate HSCs ex vivo. This experimental system will serve in further elucidating the physiological consequences of Abcg2 mediated changes in ceramide levels on stem cells in vivo. Taken together, this study shows that Abcg2 has the ability to regulate ceramide levels in cells. This in turn can lead to cellular protection from ceramide induced apoptosis. Additionally, the experimental techniques to further analyze the role of Abcg2 and ceramide in the most primitive hematopoietic stem cells were successfully established, enabling more detailed analysis in the future.