The Ets transcription factor PU.1 (encoded by the gene Sfpi1) functions in a concentration-dependent manner as a hematopoietic cell fate determinant. PU.1 levels are uniform in early hematopoiesis, increase during myeloid differentiation, and decrease after erythrocyte and T cell/natural killer cell commitment. It is unknown how downstream target genes respond to changes in PU.1 concentration. To address this, we generated mice with two distinct hypomorphic alleles of Sfpi1 and analyzed interleukin-3 dependent cell lines from fetal liver cells homozygous for either allele. PU.1 was produced in these cells at ∼20% (Sfpi1BN/BN) or ∼2% (Sfpi1Blac/Blac) of wild type. These cells fail to terminally differentiate as a consequence of low PU.1 expression and can be maintained as cell lines. To determine what groups of genes are expressed in response to two distinct PU.1 concentrations, we performed whole-genome microarray analysis and compared gene expression in Sfpi1BN/BN and Sfpi1Blac/Blac cell lines to Sfpi1−/− cell lines. Groups of downstream target genes were activated or repressed in four modes in response to the two discrete concentrations of PU.1:

  1. at higher but not lower PU.1 concentration,

  2. at lower but not higher PU.1 concentration,

  3. at both lower and higher concentration, and

  4. in a gradient fashion.

We decided to focus on genes regulated in a gradient manner, because dose-dependency suggests that these may be direct targets of PU.1. Genes activated in a gradient manner were mostly myeloid-specific and enriched for target genes of PU.1. Genes repressed in a gradient manner included erythroid-specific genes and, unexpectedly, T cell and natural killer cell-specific genes. T cell genes were also repressed by PU.1 in cultured progenitor-B cells. With this unique allelic system, we can study three discrete concentrations of PU.1 at 20%, 2%, and 0% to examine concentration-dependent effects of PU.1 on target genes and lineage decisions. Overall, our results suggest that PU.1 functions in a concentration-dependent manner to promote myeloid differentiation and repress T cell or natural killer cell development.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.