The Musashi-2 (MSI2) RNA binding protein is now recognized as a key regulator of hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). Its expression is most elevated in the primitive HSC compartment and progressively decreases with differentiation. In mouse models of CML, ectopic expression of MSI2 drives progression from the chronic to the blast crisis state while in the human context its aberrantly high expression correlates with more aggressive CML disease states and is associated with poor prognosis in AML. These studies suggest that the precise molecular regulation of MSI2 gene expression may be among the critical mechanisms underlying balanced HSC self-renewal and differentiation and as a result, the prevention of leukemic transformation/progression. Despite the clear importance of understanding how Msi2 maintains an appropriate stem cell-specific expression level, very little is understood of the transcription factors (TFs) that mediate this.

To define those factors that govern MSI2 expression and function specifically in the HSC compartment we undertook a systematic approach to map and define relevant regulatory elements of the MSI2 minimal promoter. We dissected a 3.5 kb region 5' upstream of MSI2's translational start site (TSS) shared between mouse and human and thus having the greatest potential of containing regulatory elements key to a conserved MSI2 stem-cell-specific gene expression program. Progressive 5'-terminal deletions of this region cloned upstream of a luciferase reporter gene and transfected into K562 and 293T model cell lines allowed us to define a minimal conserved promoter region from -588 to -203 bp upstream of the TSS that reports accurately on endogenous MSI2 expression. Coupled with in silico prediction of TF that bind this region, systematic TF binding site mutagenesis and luciferase reporter assays in model cell lines identified USF2 and PLAG1 as TFs whose direct binding to the MSI2 minimal promoter direct reporter activity. Loss and gain of function studies in K562 cells confirm that these factors co-regulate the transactivation of endogenous MSI2. Moreover we show in the most relevant primary human CD34+ hematopoietic cell context that these factors bind the MSI2 minimal promoter.

While USF2 is a ubiquitously expressed TF across the hematopoietic hierarchy, the uniquely restricted expression of PLAG1 within only the most primitive of hematopoietic cells suggests that it specifically contributes to the heightened stem cell-specific expression of MSI2. Consistent with its role as a key driver of MSI2 and thus an enforcer of its pro-self-renewal functions, we found that overexpression of PLAG1 in human Lin-CD34+ cord blood cells enhanced MSI2 transcription and increased total Colony Forming Unit (CFU) output and re-plating efficiency of primitive CFU progenitors. PLAG1 overexpression also offered a pro-survival advantage to these cells as evidenced by a more than two-fold reduction in Annexin V positive cells compared to negative controls. We have thus described important transcriptional circuitry that governs stem-cell specific expression of MSI2 while at the same time functionally validated PLAG1 as a novel factor capable of modulating primitive hematopoietic cell self-renewal and survival.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.