Role of Signaling in Epigenetic Control
A final question to ask concerns the role of cell signaling in influencing the epigenetic processes governing differentiation. Such a role should exist, as it would be reasonable to think that extrinsic signaling can lead to epigenetic remodeling, just as it can lead to changes in gene expression through the activation or repression of different transcription factors. Interestingly, little direct data is available concerning the specific signals that influence the epigenome, and the majority of current knowledge consist of speculations on plausible candidate regulators of epigenetic remodeling. We will first discuss several major candidates thought to be involved in the induction and maintenance of both embryonic stem cells and their differentiated progeny, and then turn to one example of specific signaling pathways in which more direct evidence exists for its role in epigenetic change.
The first major candidate is Wnt signaling pathway. The Wnt pathway is involved in all stages of differentiation, and the ligand Wnt3a can substitute for the overexpression of c-Myc in the generation of induced pluripotent stem cells. On the other hand, disruption of ß-catenin, a component of the Wnt signaling pathway, leads to decreased proliferation of neural progenitors.
Growth factors comprise the second major set of candidates of epigenetic regulators of cellular differentiation. These morphogens are crucial for development, and include bone morphogenetic proteins, transforming growth factors (TGFs), and fibroblast growth factors (FGFs). TGFs and FGFs have been shown to sustain expression of OCT4, SOX2, and NANOG by downstream signaling to Smad proteins. Depletion of growth factors promotes the differentiation of ESCs, while genes with bivalent chromatin can become either more restrictive or permissive in their transcription.
Several other signaling pathways are also considered to be primary candidates. Cytokine leukemia inhibitory factors are associated with the maintenance of mouse ESCs in an undifferentiated state. This is achieved through its activation of the Jak-STAT3 pathway, which has been shown to be necessary and sufficient towards maintaining mouse ESC pluripotency. Retinoic acid can induce differentiation of human and mouse ESCs, and Notch signaling is involved in the proliferation and self-renewal of stem cells. Finally, Sonic hedgehog, in addition to its role as a morphogen, promotes embryonic stem cell differentiation and the self-renewal of somatic stem cells.
The problem, of course, is that the candidacy of these signaling pathways was inferred primarily on the basis of their role in development and cellular differentiation. While epigenetic regulation is necessary for driving cellular differentiation, they are certainly not sufficient for this process. Direct modulation of gene expression through modification of transcription factors plays a key role that must be distinguished from heritable epigenetic changes that can persist even in the absence of the original environmental signals. Only a few examples of signaling pathways leading to epigenetic changes that alter cell fate currently exist, and we will focus on one of them.
Expression of Shh (Sonic hedgehog) upregulates the production of Bmi1, a component of the PcG complex that recognizes H3K27me3. This occurs in a Gli-dependent manner, as Gli1 and Gli2 are downstream effectors of the Hedgehog signaling pathway. In culture, Bmi1 mediates the Hedgehog pathway’s ability to promote human mammary stem cell self-renewal. In both humans and mice, researchers showed Bmi1 to be highly expressed in proliferating immature cerebellar granule cell precursors. When Bmi1 was knocked out in mice, impaired cerebellar development resulted, leading to significant reductions in postnatal brain mass along with abnormalities in motor control and behavior. A separate study showed a significant decrease in neural stem cell proliferation along with increased astrocyte proliferation in Bmi null mice.
In summary, the role of signaling in the epigenetic control of cell fate in mammals is largely unknown, but distinct examples exist that indicate the likely existence of further such mechanisms.
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