Research Article

Coupling organelle inheritance with mitosis to balance growth and differentiation

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Science  03 Feb 2017:
Vol. 355, Issue 6324, eaah4701
DOI: 10.1126/science.aah4701

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Peroxisome inheritance and differentiation

For normal tissue structure and function, cells exert strict control over growth versus differentiation. Poor wound healing and aging can result from too little proliferation. Conversely, the development of cancer can involve excessive cell growth. Asare et al. looked for regulators that balance proliferation and differentiation in the epidermis (see the Perspective by Gruneberg and Barr). They observed differences in the transcript profile of epidermal progenitors, their differentiating progeny, and epidermal cancers. Epidermal progenitors that were deficient in the peroxisome-associate protein Pex11b did not segregate peroxisomes properly among dividing cells. This led to a delay in mitosis that perturbed polarized divisions. These events skewed daughter cell fate and resulted in a defective skin barrier. Thus, peroxisome inheritance appears to play a role in normal mitosis and cell differentiation.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aah4701; see also p. 459

Structured Abstract


Adult tissues must balance growth and differentiation to develop and maintain homeostasis. Excessive differentiation can lead to aging and poor wound healing. Too much growth is observed in hyperproliferative disorders and cancers. How tissue imbalances arise in disease states is poorly understood.

Skin is an excellent system for understanding the importance of this balance. Essential for keeping harmful microbes out and retaining body fluids, the skin barrier is maintained by an inner layer of proliferative basal progenitors, which generate a constant outward flux of terminally differentiating cells. It is known that when epidermal progenitors accumulate mutations that will give rise to malignancy, they change their program of gene expression. However, the extent to which cancer progression involves a gain of proliferation versus a loss of differentiation is unclear. A detailed molecular knowledge of how normal basal epidermal progenitors transition from a proliferative, undifferentiated state to a terminally differentiated state allows us to investigate how this process goes awry in a tumorigenic state. We use a genetic screen to identify which of the gene changes that occur in both early cell commitment and cancer are integral to maintaining the balance between growth and differentiation.


Epithelial cancers are among the most prevalent and life-threatening cancers worldwide. Despite intensive research, the mechanisms by which these cancers evade regulatory systems working to balance differentiation and proliferation remain poorly understood. To provide new insights into how malignancies arise and how this might be exploited in advancing cancer therapeutics, we tackled this problem in the developing skin where these regulatory systems are established.


To understand how the balance between growth and differentiation is controlled, we first devised a strategy to transcriptionally profile epidermal stem cells and their terminally differentiating progeny. Using this method, we defined the earliest molecular events associated with the commitment of epidermal progenitors to their differentiation program. Of the many changes that occur, we focused on the cohort of genes that are also mutated in human epithelial cancers. To sift through which of these genes are functional drivers in cancers and how they perturb homeostasis, we conducted an in vivo epidermal RNA interference (RNAi) screen to identify candidates that are selectively enriched or depleted in proliferative progenitors relative to their differentiating progeny.

We focused on PEX11b, a protein associated with peroxisomes, organelles involved in fatty acid and energy metabolism. PEX11b deficiency compromised epidermal terminal differentiation and barrier formation. Without PEX11b, peroxisomes functioned but failed to localize and therefore segregate properly during mitosis.

Probing deeper, we discovered that in normal cells, peroxisomes take on stereotyped positions during mitosis. However, after depletion of PEX11b, peroxisomes failed to localize. Localization was directly coupled to mitotic progression, and when peroxisomes were mislocalized, a mitotic delay occurred. During this delay, spindles rotated uncontrollably, subsequently leading to perturbed polarized divisions and skewed daughter fates. Using a recently developed light-activated organelle repositioning technique to ectopically move peroxisomes, we found that altering peroxisomal localization in a PEX11b-independent manner also causes mitotic alterations.


Through transcriptional profiling and RNAi screening, we defined molecular targets associated with either increased proliferation or differentiation. One such target, the peroxisome membrane protein PEX11b, was required for epidermal development. The imbalance in epidermal differentiation that resulted from PEX11b deficiency and peroxisome mislocalization in mitosis was caused by an inability of basal stem cells to orient their spindle perpendicularly relative to the underlying basement membrane. For a stratified epithelium, where spindle orientation plays a critical role in establishing tissue architecture and homeostasis, this defect had dire consequences. Our findings unveil a role for organelle inheritance in mitosis, spindle attachment and alignment, and the choice of daughter progenitors to differentiate or remain stem-like.

Screening for genes that perturb the growth/differentiation balance in skin.

Proliferative epidermal progenitors (blue) generate differentiating suprabasal layers (orange). After RNA sequencing, the subset of genes differentially expressed and altered in cancers were screened in vivo for those perturbing growth/differentiation. Focusing on Pex11b-RNAi, we found that during mitosis, metaphase peroxisomes (green) normally localized around spindle poles, but with diminished PEX11b, peroxisomes were disorganized, causing spindle alignment defects and mitotic delay, leading to failed terminal differentiation.


Balancing growth and differentiation is essential to tissue morphogenesis and homeostasis. How imbalances arise in disease states is poorly understood. To address this issue, we identified transcripts differentially expressed in mouse basal epidermal progenitors versus their differentiating progeny and those altered in cancers. We used an in vivo RNA interference screen to unveil candidates that altered the equilibrium between the basal proliferative layer and suprabasal differentiating layers forming the skin barrier. We found that epidermal progenitors deficient in the peroxisome-associated protein Pex11b failed to segregate peroxisomes properly and entered a mitotic delay that perturbed polarized divisions and skewed daughter fates. Together, our findings unveil a role for organelle inheritance in mitosis, spindle alignment, and the choice of daughter progenitors to differentiate or remain stem-like.

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