Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are maintained in an undifferentiated state through expression of the core transcriptional factors Nanog, Oct4, and Sox2. However, the epigenetic regulation of pluripotency is poorly understood. Differentiation of ESCs is accompanied by a global reduction of panacetylation of histones H3 and H4 suggesting that histone acetylation plays an important role in maintenance of ESC pluripotency. Acetylated lysine residues on histones are read by members of the bromodomain family that includes BET (bromodomain and extraterminal domain) proteins for which highly potent and selective inhibitors have been developed. In this study we demonstrate that the pan-BET bromodomain inhibitor JQ1 induces rapid spontaneous differentiation of murine ESCs by inducing marked transcriptional downregulation of Nanog as well as the stemness markers Lefty1 and Lefty2, but not Myc, often used as a marker of BET inhibitor activity in cancer. We show that the effects of JQ1 are recapitulated by knockdown of the BET family member BRD4 implicating this protein in Nanog regulation. These data are also supported by chromatin immunoprecipitation experiments which confirm BRD4 binding at the Nanog promoter that is known to require acetylation by the histone acetyltransferase MOF for transcriptional activity. In further support of our findings, we show that JQ1 antagonizes the stem cell-promoting effects of the histone deacetylase inhibitors sodium butyrate and valproic acid. Our data suggest that BRD4 is critical for the maintenance of ESC pluripotency and that this occurs primarily through the maintenance of Nanog expression.
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