Role of the Intermediate Filament Protein Vimentin in Delaying Senescence and in the Spontaneous Immortalization of Mouse Embryo Fibroblasts

Tolstonog, Genrich V.; Shoeman, Robert L.; Traub, Ulrike; Traub, Peter
September 2001
DNA & Cell Biology;Sep2001, Vol. 20 Issue 9, p509
Academic Journal
Because knockout of the vimentin gene in mice did not produce an immediately obvious, overt, or lethal specific phenotype, the conjecture was made that the mutation affects some subtle cellular functions whose loss manifests itself only when the mutant animals are exposed to stress. In order to substantiate this idea in a tractable in vitro system, primary embryo fibroblasts from wildtype (V[sup +/+]) and vimentin-knockout (V[sup -/-]) mice were compared with regard to their growth behavior under the pseudophysiologic conditions of conventional cell culture. Whereas in the course of serial transfer, the V[sup +/+] fibroblasts progressively reduced their growth potential, passed through a growth minimum around passage 12 (crisis), and, as immortalized cells, resumed faster growth, the V[sup -/-] fibroblasts also cut down their growth rate but much earlier, and they either did not immortalize or did so at an almost undetectable rate. Cells withdrawing from the cell cycle showed increased concentrations of reactive oxygen species and signs of oxidative damage: enlarged and flattened morphology, large nuclear volume, reinforced stress fiber system as a result of increased contents of actin and associated proteins, prominent extracellular matrix, and perinuclear masses of pathological forms of mitochondria with low membrane potential. The differences in the cell cycle behavior of the V[sup +/+] and V[sup -/-] cells in conjunction with the morphologic changes observed in mitotically arrested cells suggests a protective function of vimentin against oxidative cell damage. Because vimentin exhibits affinity for and forms crosslinkage products with recombinogenic nuclear as well as mitochondrial DNA in intact cells, it is credible to postulate that vimentin plays a role in the recombinogenic repair of oxidative damage inflicted on the nuclear and mitochondrial genome throughout the cells' replicative lifespan. Recombinational events mediated by vimentin also appear to take place when the cells pass through the genetically unstable state of crisis to attain immortality. The residual immortalization potential of V[sup -/-] fibroblasts might be attributable to their capacity to synthesize, in place of vimentin, the tetrameric form of a lacZ fusion protein carrying, in addition to a nuclear localization signal, the N-terminal 59 amino acids of vimentin and thus its DNA-binding site. On the basis of these results and considerations, a major biologic role of vimentin may be to protect animals during development and postnatal life against genetic damage and, because of its contribution to the plasticity of the genome, to allow them to respond to environmental challenges.


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