An Alternative Culture Method to Maintain Hypomethylation of Mouse Embryonic Stem Cells Using MEK Inhibitor PD0325901 and Vitamin C

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Embryonic stem (ES) cells have the potential to differentiate into any of the three germ layers (endoderm, mesoderm, or ectoderm), and can generate many lineages for regenerative medicine. ES cell culture in vitro has long been the subject of widespread concerns. Classically, mouse ES cells are maintained in serum and leukemia inhibitory factor (LIF)-containing medium. However, under serum/LIF conditions, cells show heterogeneity in morphology and the expression profile of pluripotency-related genes, and are mostly in a metastable state. Moreover, cultured ES cells exhibit global hypermethylation, but naïve ES cells of the inner cell mass (ICM) and primordial germ cells (PGCs) are in a state of global hypomethylation. The hypomethylated state of ICM and PGCs is closely associated with their pluripotency. To improve mouse ES cell culture methods, we have recently developed a new method based on the selectively combined utilization of two small-molecule compounds to maintain the DNA hypomethylated and pluripotent state. Here, we present that the co-treatment of vitamin C (Vc) and PD0325901 can erase about 90% of 5-methylcytosine (5mC) at 5 days in mouse ES cells. The generated 5mC content is comparable to that in PGCs. The mechanistic investigation shows that PD0325901 up-regulates Prdm14 expression to suppress Dnmt3b (de novo DNA methyltransferase) and Dnmt3l (the cofactor of Dnmt3b), by reducing de novo 5mC synthesis. Vc facilitates the conversion of 5mC to 5-hydroxymethylcytosine (5hmC) catalyzed mainly by Tet1 and Tet2, indicating the involvement of both passive and active DNA demethylations. Moreover, under Vc/PD0325901 conditions, mouse ES cells show homogeneous morphology and pluripotent state. Collectively, we propose a novel and chemical-synergy culture method for achieving DNA hypomethylation and maintenance of pluripotency in mouse ES cells. The small-molecule chemical-dependent method overcomes the major shortcomings of serum culture, and holds promise to generate homogeneous ES cells for further clinical applications and researches.