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Stem Cells. 2007 Jan;25(1):29-38.

Activin a efficiently specifies definitive endoderm from human embryonic stem cells only when phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase signaling is suppressed.

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Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA.


Human ESCs (hESCs) respond to signals that determine their pluripotency, proliferation, survival, and differentiation status. In this report, we demonstrate that phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K) antagonizes the ability of hESCs to differentiate in response to transforming growth factor beta family members such as Activin A and Nodal. Inhibition of PI3K signaling efficiently promotes differentiation of hESCs into mesendoderm and then definitive endoderm (DE) by allowing them to be specified by Activin/Nodal signals present in hESC cultures. Under conditions where hESCs are grown in mouse embryo fibroblast-conditioned medium under feeder-free conditions, approximately 70%-80% are converted into DE following 5 days of treatment with inhibitors of the PI3K pathway, such as LY 294002 and AKT1-II. Microarray and quantitative polymerase chain reaction-based gene expression profiling demonstrates that definitive endoderm formation under these conditions closely parallels that following specification with elevated Activin A and low fetal calf serum (FCS)/knockout serum replacement (KSR). Reduced insulin/insulin-like growth factor (IGF) signaling was found to be critical for cell fate commitment into DE. Levels of insulin/IGF present in FCS/KSR, normally used to promote self-renewal of hESCs, antagonized differentiation. In summary, we show that generation of hESC-DE requires two conditions: signaling by Activin/Nodal family members and release from inhibitory signals generated by PI3K through insulin/IGF. These findings have important implications for our understanding of hESC self-renewal and early cell fate decisions.

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