The processes of cell cycle control, differentiation and apoptosis are closely intertwined in controlling cell fate during development and in adult homeostasis. Molecular pathways connecting these events in stem cells are poorly defined and we were particularly interested in the cysteine-aspartic acid protease, Caspase-3, an ‘executioner’ caspase also implicated in the regulation of the cyclin dependent kinase inhibitors, p21Cip1 and p27Kip1. These latter proteins are known to participate in primitive hematopoietic cell cycling and self-renewal. We demonstrated high levels of Caspase-3 mRNA and protein in immunophenotypically defined mouse hematopoietic stem cells (HSC). Using mice engineered to be deficient in Caspase-3, we observed a consistent reduction of lymphocytes in peripheral blood counts and a slight reduction in bone marrow cellularity. Notably, knockout animals had an increase in the stem cell enriched LincKit+Sca1+Flk2low (LKSFlk2lo) cell fraction. The apoptotic rates of LKS cells under homeostatic conditions as assayed by the Annexin V assay were not significantly different from controls. However, in-vitro analysis of sorted LKS cells revealed a reduced sensitivity to apoptotic cell death in absence of Caspase-3 under conditions of stress (cytokine withdrawal or gamma irradiation). Primitive hematopoietic cells displayed a higher proliferation rate as demonstrated by BrdU incorporation and a significant reduction in the percentage of cells in the quiescent stage of the cell cycle assessed by the Pyronin-Y/Hoechst staining. Upon transplantation, Caspase-3−/− stem cells demonstrated marked differentiation abnormalities with significantly reduced ability to differentiate into multiple hematopoietic lineages while maintaining an increased number of primitive cells. In a competitive bone marrow transplant using congenic mouse stains Capase-3 deficient HSC out-competed WT cells at the stem cell level, while giving rise to comparable number of peripheral blood cells as the WT controls. Transplant of WT BM cells into Caspase-3 deficient mice revealed no difference in reconstitution ability, suggesting negligible effect of the Caspase-3−/− niche microenvironment to stem cell function. These data indicate that Caspase-3 is involved in the regulation of differentiation and proliferation of HSC as a cell autonomous process. The molecular bases for these effects remain to be determined, but the multi-faceted nature of the changes seen suggest that Caspase-3 is central to multiple regulatory pathways in the stem cell compartment.

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

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