Signaling by the erythropoietin receptor (EpoR) is essential for the survival of definitive colony-forming unit-erythroid (CFU-e) progenitors and their erythroblast progeny. Here we used EpoR-null embryos to ask whether EpoR signaling might also exert essential non-survival functions in erythropoiesis.
To address this, we rescued EpoR-null fetal liver cells from death by transducing them in vitro with either the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-xL, or, as control, with the wild-type EpoR. The Bcl-xL-transduced EpoR-null cells survived, expressed hemoglobin and underwent morphological erythroid maturation and enucleation. However, unlike exogenous EpoR, exogenous Bcl-xL was unable to support the formation of EpoR-null CFU-e colonies in methylcellulose. The absence of colonies was explained by the finding that the Bcl-xL-transduced progenitors underwent fewer cell divisions than equivalent EpoR-transduced cells (1.1 vs. 2.9 in 24 hr, respectively) and had a slower rate of intra-S phase DNA synthesis, suggesting longer S phase duration. Multispectral imaging showed that the Bcl-xL-transduced cells matured prematurely, attaining smaller cell and nuclear size and a lower nuclear/cytoplasmic ratio at earlier time points than EpoR-transduced cells. Premature maturation was also evident by flow cytometric analysis. Thus, EpoR-null fetal liver cells in vivo arrest in their differentiation at the transition from subset S0 (Ter119-neg CD71-low) to S1 (Ter119-neg CD71-high) (Pop et al, PLoS Biology 2010). Rescue with EpoR in vitro allows EpoR-null progenitors to resume differentiation, sequentially upregulating CD71 and Ter119. By contrast, rescue of EpoR-null cells with Bcl-xL results in their premature upregulation of Ter119 and failure to upregulate CD71 to high levels. The cell cycle and differentiation deficits in Bcl-xL-supported, EpoR-null erythropoiesis were associated with a slower loss of DNA methylation from the erythroid genome, and with slower erythroid gene transcription.
CD71 (the transferrin receptor) is a known target of EpoR and Stat5 signaling. We asked whether the deficits of EpoR-null erythropoiesis might be the result of low cell surface CD71 and the consequent reduced iron transport. In support of this hypothesis, we found that EpoR-null fetal liver cells that are transduced with both CD71 and Bcl-xL resume the normal maturation rate characteristic of EpoR-supported differentiation, as judged by multispectral imaging measurements of cell size and nuclear/cytoplasmic ratio. Further, we were able to restore rapid S phase to Bcl-xL-transduced EpoR-/- erythroblasts by culturing them in the presence of the cell-permeant iron chelator Fe-SIH (salicylaldehyde isonicotinoyl hydrazone), which is able to supply the cell interior with iron even in the absence of CD71 (Figure 1). We suggest that EpoR-mediated upregulation of CD71 at the onset of erythroid terminal differentiation determines the number and duration of erythroblast cell divisions by regulating iron homeostasis.
No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.
Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.