The mammalian erythrocyte is a highly specialized blood cell that differentiates via an orderly series of committed progenitors in the bone marrow in a process termed erythropoiesis. Homeostasis of the erythron is carefully maintained by balancing the proliferation and destruction of early and late erythroid progenitors. In mature red blood cells over ninety-five percent of the protein is hemoglobin (Hb). What happens to committed erythroid cells in the absence of hemoglobin? To answer this question we have derived a novel line of embryonic stem (ES) cells from mouse embryos that have all eight adult alpha and beta globin genes knocked out. These “Null” Hb ES cells were injected into wild-type blastocysts to examine their in vivo potential to contribute to the tissues of developing chimeric mice. Examination of the peripheral blood and bone marrow of these chimeras by flow cytometry revealed that the “Null” Hb ES cells were able to produce normal levels of each type of white blood cell analyzed. However, “Null” erythrocytes were absent from the circulation and only early committed progenitors were found in the bone marrow. Very few “Null” erythroid cells matured beyond the proerythoblast to the basophilic erythroblast stage (Ter119low, CD71hi). To study this maturational block in more detail, an erythroid culture system was established by in vitro differentiation of the “Null” Hb ES cells. These pure erythroid progenitor (EP) cultures support and amplify the proerythroblast stage of development. Interestingly, EP cells could be derived from “Null” Hb ES cells demonstrating that Hb is not required for the development of proerythroblasts. “Null” derived EP cells express erythroid lineage markers (EKLF, GATA1, GypA, EpoR, Tal1), but express no adult globins or markers of other hematopoietic lineages (Mpl, GATA3, IL7R, PAX5, CEBPα, CD41b). Upon terminal differentiation most “Null” derived EP cells undergo apoptosis by 48 hours (7AAD−, Annexin V+) and are dead (7AAD+) by 72 hours. These “Null” Hb ES cells provide a novel experimental system to elucidate the role of hemoglobin during erythroid differentiation, maturation, and homeostasis.

Author notes

Disclosure: No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.