Stem cell properties change over time to match the changing growth and regeneration demands of tissues. We showed previously that adult forebrain stem cell function declines during aging because of increased expression of let-7 microRNAs, evolutionarily conserved heterochronic genes that reduce HMGA2 expression. Here we asked whether let-7 targets also regulate changes between fetal and adult stem cells. We found a second let-7 target, the RNA binding protein IMP1, that is expressed by fetal, but not adult, neural stem cells. IMP1 expression was promoted by Wnt signaling and Lin28a expression and opposed by let-7 microRNAs. Imp1-deficient neural stem cells were prematurely depleted in the dorsal telencephalon due to accelerated differentiation, impairing pallial expansion. IMP1 post-transcriptionally inhibited the expression of differentiation-associated genes while promoting the expression of self-renewal genes, including Hmga2. A network of heterochronic gene products including Lin28a, let-7, IMP1, and HMGA2 thus regulates temporal changes in stem cell properties.
Stem cells are found throughout the body, and play key roles in promoting tissue growth during fetal development, and in maintaining tissues in the adult. When stem cells divide, they can either give rise to more stem cells, or they can generate specialized cells required for tissue function. However, the properties of stem cells must change over time to match the changing growth and regeneration demands of tissues.
A previous study by Nishino et al. has shown that expression of a micro RNA molecule called let-7 increases throughout adulthood, and this reduces the activity of stem cells in older animals. Now, Nishino et al. report that let-7, and other genes it regulates, also control the dramatic changes that occur in the properties of stem cells between fetal development and adulthood. Whereas stem cells in the fetal forebrain undergo rapid division and are capable of generating many different cell types, stem cells in the adult forebrain divide less often and can generate only a few specific types of cell. While Nishino et al. performed their study on stem cells in the brain, their results are likely to apply also to stem cells in other tissues.
Nishino et al. show that let-7 regulates the production of an RNA binding protein called IMP1. Mice with stem cells that lack IMP1 have a smaller cerebral cortex than normal mice because their stem cells undergo fewer rounds of division before committing to become brain cells. Additional experiments revealed that IMP1 inhibits the expression of genes that trigger stem cells to commit to specific fates and promotes the expression of genes related to self-renewal.
These results indicate that the gene that encodes IMP1 is expressed in fetal neural stem cells, but not in adult neural stem cells, and that the reduced production of this protein contributes to the developmental switch from highly proliferative neural stem cells in the fetus to the more quiescent stem cells found in adults. Further studies are likely to identify many more targets of let-7 that enable stem cells to adapt their properties to the changing needs of the organism over time.
These results are interesting because let-7-regulated networks were first discovered based on their ability to regulate the timing of developmental transitions in worms. This suggests that the mechanisms employed by mammalian tissue stem cells to regulate changes in their properties over time, are at least partly evolutionarily conserved mechanisms inherited from invertebrates.