The balance between self-renewal and differentiation of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) is maintained by cell intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms, including tight regulation of signaling pathways such as Tpo-Mpl and SCF-ckit. Posttranslational modifications, such as phosphorylation and ubiquitination, regulate these pathways. While the role of protein phosphorylation is well established, the importance of ubiquitination in HSC self-renewal has not been well addressed. It is known that of the seven different lysines on ubiquitin, Lys48 polyubiquitination is a marker for protein degradation, and Lys63 polyubiquitination is associated with regulation of kinase activity, protein trafficking, and localization. In this study, we provide evidence that the adaptor protein MERIT40 has multiple roles in hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells (HSPCs). MERIT40 is a scaffolding protein shared by two distinct complexes with Lys63 deubiquitinase (DUB) activities: the nuclear RAP80 complex with a known role in DNA damage repair in breast/ovarian cancer cells, whereas the functions of the cytoplasmic BRISC remains less characterized. MERIT40 is important for integrity of both complexes, and its deficiency leads to their destabilization and a >90% reduction in deubiquitinase activity. By using MERIT40 knockout (M40-/-) mice, we found that lack of MERIT40 leads to a two-fold increase in phenotypic and functional HSCs determined by FACS and limiting dilution bone marrow transplantation (BMT), respectively. More importantly, M40-/- HSCs have increased regenerative capability demonstrated by increased chimerism in the peripheral blood after BMT of purified HSCs. The higher self-renewal potential of these HSCs provides a survival advantage to M40-/- mice and HSCs after repetitive administration of the cytotoxic agent 5-flurouracil (5FU). MERIT40 deficiency also preserves HSC stemness in culture as judged by an increase in peripheral blood chimerism in recipient mice transplanted with M40-/- Lin-Sca1+Kit+ (LSK) cells cultured in cytokines for nine days compared to recipient mice receiving cultured wildtype (WT) LSK cells. In contrast to the increased HSC homeostasis and superior stem cell activity due to MERIT40 deficiency, M40-/- mice are hypersensitive to DNA damaging agents caused by inter-cross linking (ICL), such as Mitomycin C (MMC) and acetaldehydes that are generated as side products of intracellular metabolism. MMC injection caused increased mortality in M40-/- mice compared to WT controls attributable to DNA damage-induced bone marrow failure. MMC-treated M40-/- mice showed marked reduction in LSK progenitor numbers accompanied by increased DNA damage, in comparison to WT mice. Consistent with the in vivo studies, M40-/- progenitor cells are hypersensitive to MMC and acetaldehyde treatment in a cell-autonomous manner in colony forming assays. ICL repair is known to require Fanconi Anemia (FA) proteins, an ICL repair network of which mutations in at least 15 different genes in humans cause bone marrow failure and cancer predisposition. Thus, M40-/- mice represent a novel mouse model to study ICL repair in HSPCs with potential relevance to bone marrow failure syndromes. Taken together, our data establishes a complex role of MERIT40 in HSPCs, warranting future investigation to decipher functional events downstream of two distinct deubiquitinating complexes associated with MERIT40 that may regulate distinct aspects of HSPC function. Furthermore, our findings reveal novel regulatory pathways involving a previously unappreciated role of K63-DUB in stem cell biology, DNA repair regulation and possibly bone marrow failure. DUBs are specialized proteases and have emerged as potential “druggable” targets for a variety of diseases. Hence, our work may provide insights into novel therapies for the treatment of bone marrow failure and associated malignancies that occur in dysregulated HSCs.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.

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