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J Cell Sci. 1995 Jun;108 ( Pt 6):2261-71.

Differential expression of bcl-2 in intestinal epithelia. Correlation with attenuation of apoptosis in colonic crypts and the incidence of colonic neoplasia.

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CRC Department of Epithelial Biology, Paterson Institute, Manchester, UK.


The cell-positional incidence of both spontaneous and damage-induced apoptosis of epithelial cells was assessed in longitudinal sections of the crypts of small intestine and colon of BDF1 mice. This was compared, using immunohistochemistry, with the pattern of expression of bcl-2, a suppressor of apoptosis. In the small intestine, apoptosis was maximal around cell position 4 from the base of the crypt; this closely corresponds to the position considered to contain the stem cells. In the colon, however, apoptosis was not confined to the area considered to harbour the stem cells (position 1 and 2). Instead, apoptosis was attenuated and distributed along the length of the crypt. Some cells at the base of murine colonic crypts expressed bcl-2 protein, whereas bcl-2 was absent in the crypts of the small intestine. Most pertinently, bcl-2 was absent from small intestinal crypt cells at positions 4-5 (the stem cell region). The importance of the expression of bcl-2 to the attenuation of apoptosis in stem cells was confirmed by analysis of the levels of both spontaneous and induced apoptosis in homozygously bcl-2 null C57BL/6 mice: in colonic crypts the level of spontaneous apoptosis rose significantly, and selectively at the base of the crypt, in comparison with crypts from wild-type animals. In contrast, there was no rise in spontaneous apoptosis in the small intestinal crypts from the bcl-2 null animals. Analysis of sections of human colon and small intestine also showed that expression of bcl-2 was confined to the base of the colonic crypt. The attenuation of apoptosis by bcl-2 in the region of the stem cells of the colonic crypts may dispose these to neoplastic transformation. Indeed, analysis of human carcinomas revealed expression of bcl-2, which in some samples was reciprocal with the expression of p53.

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