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Introduction: Bone marrow mesenchymal stem cells/multipotent stromal cells (MSCs) are recruited to sites of injury and subsequently support regeneration through differentiation or paracrine activity. During periods of stress such as wound site implant or differentiation, MSCs are subjected to a variety of stressors that might activate pathways to improve cell survival and generate energy. In this study, we monitored MSC autophagy in response to the process of differentiation. Methods: MSC autophagosome structures were observed by using transmission electron microscopy and a tandem green fluorescent protein-red fluorescent protein autophagic flux reporter to monitor the mammalian microtubule-associated protein-1 light chain 3 (LC3) turnover in real time. MSCs were differentiated by using standard osteogenic and adipogenic media, and autophagy was examined during short-term and long-term differentiation via immunoblots for LC3I and II. Autophagy was modulated during differentiation by using rapamycin and bafilomycin treatments to disrupt the autophagosome balance during the early stages of the differentiation process, and differentiation was monitored in the long term by using Von Kossa and Oil Red O staining as well as quantitative polymerase chain reaction analysis of typical differentiation markers. Results: We found that undifferentiated MSCs showed an accumulation of a large number of undegraded autophagic vacuoles, with little autophagic turnover. Stimulation of autophagy with rapamycin led to rapid degradation of these autophagosomes and greatly increased rough endoplasmic reticulum size. Upon induction of osteogenic differentiation, MSC expression of LC3II, a common autophagosome marker, was lost within 12 hours, consistent with increased turnover. However, during adipogenic differentiation, drug treatment to alter the autophagosome balance during early differentiation led to changes in differentiation efficiency, with inhibited adipocyte formation following rapamycin treatment and accelerated fat accumulation following autophagosome blockade by bafilomycin. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that MSCs exist in a state of arrested autophagy with high autophagosome accumulation and are poised to rapidly undergo autophagic degradation. This phenotype is highly sensitive, and a balance of autophagy appears to be key in efficient MSC differentiation and function, as evidenced by our results implicating autophagic flux in early osteogenesis and adipogenesis.
Nuschke, A., Rodrigues, M., Stolz, D. B., Chu, C. T., Griffith, L., & Wells, A. (2014). Human mesenchymal stem cells/multipotent stromal cells consume accumulated autophagosomes early in differentiation. Stem Cell Research and Therapy, 5(6). https://doi.org/10.1186/scrt530