Connexin 32-mediated cell-cell communication is essential for hepatic differentiation from human embryonic stem cells

Gap junction-mediated cell-cell interactions are highly conserved and play essential roles in cell survival, proliferation, differentiation and patterning. We report that Connexin 32 (Cx32)-mediated gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC) is necessary for human embryonic stem cell-derived hepatocytes (hESC-Heps) during step-wise hepatic lineage restriction and maturation. Vitamin K2, previously shown to promote Cx32 expression in mature hepatocytes, up-regulated Cx32 expression and GJIC activation during hepatic differentiation and maturation, resulting in significant increases of hepatic markers expression and hepatocyte functions. In contrast, negative Cx32 regulator 2-aminoethoxydiphenyl borate blocked hESC-to-hepatocyte maturation and muted hepatocyte functions through disruption of GJIC activities. Dynamic gap junction organization and internalization are phosphorylation-dependent and the p38 mitogen-activated protein kinases pathway (MAPK) can negatively regulate Cxs through phosphorylation-dependent degradation of Cxs. We found that p38 MAPK inhibitor SB203580 improved maturation of hESC-Heps correlating with up-regulation of Cx32; by contrast, the p38 MAPK activator, anisomycin, blocked hESC-Heps maturation correlating with down-regulation of Cx32. These results suggested that Cx32 is essential for cell-cell interactions that facilitate driving hESCs through hepatic-lineage maturation. Regulators of both Cx32 and other members of its pathways maybe used as a promising approach on regulating hepatic lineage restriction of pluripotent stem cells and optimizing their functional maturation.

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