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PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e26126. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026126. Epub 2011 Oct 11.

Elimination of proliferating cells unmasks the shift from senescence to quiescence caused by rapamycin.

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Department of Cell Stress Biology, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, New York, United States of America.



Depending on cellular context, p53-inducing agents (such as nutlin-3a) cause different outcomes including reversible quiescence and irreversible senescence. Inhibition of mTOR shifts the balance from senescence to quiescence. In cell lines with incomplete responses to p53, this shift may be difficult to document because of a high proportion of proliferating cells contaminating arrested (quiescent and senescent) cells. This problem also complicates the study of senescence caused by minimal levels of p21 that are capable to arrest a few cells.


During induction of senescence by low levels of endogenous p53 and ectopic p21, cells were co-treated with nocodazole, which eliminated proliferating cells. As a result, only senescent and quiescent cells remained.


This approach revealed that rapamycin efficiently converted nutlin-induced-senescence into quiescence. In the presence of rapamycin, nutlin-arrested MCF-7 cells retained the proliferative potential and small/lean morphology. Using this approach, we also unmasked senescence in cells arrested by low levels of ectopic p21, capable to arrest only a small proportion of HT1080-p21-9 cells. When p21 did cause arrest, mTOR caused senescent phenotype. Rapamycin and high concentrations of nutlin-3a, which inhibit the mTOR pathway in these particular cells, suppressed senescence, ensuring quiescence instead. Thus, p21 causes senescence passively, just by causing arrest, while still active mTOR drives senescent phenotype.

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