The human leukemia cell line, K562, produces embryonic and fetal hemoglobins and glycophorin A, proteins normally associated only with erythroid cells. Hemoglobin accumulation is enhanced by exposure of the cells to 0.05 mM hemin. We have examined K562 cells before and after exposure to hemin to determine whether expression of these erythroid proteins was shared by all cells or confined to specific subpopulations. Globin gene expression was examined by quantitation of globin mRNA sequences, using a 3H-globin cDNA molecular hybridization probe. Constitutive cells produced globin mRNA, the content of which was increased 3–4-fold by hemin. Cell-to-cell distribution of globin mRNA was determined by in situ hybridization of 3H-globin cDNA to constitutive and hemin-treated K562 cells. Virtually all cells in the culture exhibited grain counts above background, indicating globin gene expression by all cells, rather than a confined subpopulation. Virtually all hemin-treated cells had 3–5-fold higher grain counts, indicating uniformly increased globin gene expression. The glycophorin content of K562 cells was estimated by fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS) of cells labeled with fluorescein-labeled antiglycophorin antiserum. The vast majority of constitutive cells contained glycophorin, but exhibited to apparent increase in glycophorin accumulation after hemin exposure. Thus, glycophorin and globin genes exhibited differential responses to hemin. These differences could reflect normal differences in the patterns of specialized gene expression in stem cells. Alternatively, different aberrations of gene expression could be occurring in response to the determinants of the neoplastic properties of K562.

This content is only available as a PDF.