Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) reside in the bone marrow in specific niches at the border between bone cells and the bone marrow (endosteal niche) or around blood vessels (perivascular niche). In the endosteal niche, HSCs are maintained at low oxygen levels in a quiescent (dormant) state by adhesion to niche cells. We have previously shown that Gfi1b restricts the expansion and proliferation of HSCs as well as their mobilization or re-localization into peripheral blood. We have proposed that Gfi1b exerts this function by regulating the expression of surface molecules such as integrins on HSCs that are required to maintain them in their bone marrow niche at a quiescent state. The objective of this study was to gain more insight into the precise molecular mechanisms by which Gfi1b regulates HSCs dormancy and mobilization and to obtain insights that may be exploited in the future to improve stem cell therapies or the expansion of human hematopoietic stem cells for clinical use.

Immune precipitation and mass spectrometry identified a series of Gfi1b interacting proteins, most notably a group of regulators of the canonical Wnt/beta-catenin pathway. Independent protein IP validation of these findings suggested that Gfi1b can interact with several inhibitors of the canonical Wnt/beta catenin pathway namely with APC (Adenomatous polyposis coli) a tumor suppressor protein and important factor in the beta-catenin destruction complex, with the DNA helicase and chromatin remodeling factor CHD8, which silences beta catenin mediated transcription, with CtBP which antagonizes beta-catenin activity and is part of the LSD1/CoRest histone demethylase complex and with the direct beta-catenin inhibitors TLE1 and TLE3 (also called Groucho). Of particular interest was that the interactions between the Groucho proteins and Gfi1b were dependent on a previously unidentified Groucho binding domain (GBD) in Gfi1b. This is a well-conserved six-amino acid stretch that is found in the middle part of the Gfi1b protein. In addition, the binding of CtBP was dependent on the presence of the 20 amino acid N-terminal SNAG domain in Gfi1b that also mediates LSD1 binding. Using luciferase reporter gene assays (TOP/FOP reporter assay), we found that Gfi1b was able to significantly up-regulates TCF/beta-catenin-dependent transcription upon activation by LiCl or Wnt3A in HEK293 cells. This activity of Gfi1b was dependent on both the presence of the SNAG domain and the newly identified Groucho binding domain. Also, Gfi1b was able to reverse partially the inhibitory effect of CtBP and TLE3 on beta-catenin activity in the TOP/FOP reporter assays. To obtain further evidence that Gfi1b is indeed implicated in regulating the Wnt/beta catenin signaling pathway in hematopoietic stem cells, we FACS sorted Lin-Kit1+Sca+ hematopoietic progenitors (LSK cells) from wt and Gfi1b deficient mice and tested them for expression of Wnt effector genes using a Wnt signaling specific PCR array. We observed that the majority of Wnt target genes were significantly down regulated in Gfi1 deficient LSKs compared to wt LSKs. Among the genes affected the most were typical Wnt targets such as Axin2, Frz7, Tcf4, Klf5, Vegfa and Ccnd1. To show that Gfi1b is able to regulate Wnt pathway effectors in vivo in HSCs, we crossed Gfi1b flox/flox, Mx-Cre mice with animals that carry a NLS-lacZ reporter gene under the control of the endogenous Axin2 promoter/enhancer region. Treatment with pIpC, which deletes Gfi1b correlated with a significant decrease of Axin2 expression in HSCs and MPP1, which are high Gfi1b expressing cells. The Axin2 reporter was not affected by Gfi1b deletion in MPP2 or GMPs, which express low levels or no Gfi1b.

The canonical Wnt/b-catenin signaling pathway is recognized as one of the elements that are critically important in the regulation of HSC function. Here we have identified Gfi1b as a potential new player in the Wnt-beta catenin signaling pathway. Our data suggest that Gfi1b acts on at least two inhibitory complexes of this pathway, on the TLE family of Groucho proteins and the CtBP/LSD1 complex and regulates effectors of the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling cascade. We propose therefore that Gfi1b may titer the level of activation of the Wnt/beta-catenin signaling pathway in HSCs, which offers an explanation of the hematopoietic stem cell phenotype seen in mice lacking Gfi1b.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.