The control of self-renewal and differentiation of neural stem and progenitor cells is a crucial issue in stem cell and cancer biology. Drosophila type II neuroblast lineages are prone to developing impaired neuroblast homeostasis if the limited self-renewing potential of intermediate neural progenitors (INPs) is unrestrained. Here, we demonstrate that Drosophila SWI/SNF chromatin remodeling Brahma (Brm) complex functions cooperatively with another chromatin remodeling factor, Histone deacetylase 3 (HDAC3) to suppress the formation of ectopic type II neuroblasts. We show that multiple components of the Brm complex and HDAC3 physically associate with Earmuff (Erm), a type II-specific transcription factor that prevents dedifferentiation of INPs into neuroblasts. Consistently, the predicted Erm-binding motif is present in most of known binding loci of Brm. Furthermore, brm and hdac3 genetically interact with erm to prevent type II neuroblast overgrowth. Thus, the Brm-HDAC3-Erm repressor complex suppresses dedifferentiation of INPs back into type II neuroblasts.
Stem cells show great promise for repairing damaged tissue, and maybe even generating new organs, but stem cell therapies will only be successful if researchers can understand and control the behaviour of stem cells in the lab. Neural stem cells or ‘neuroblasts’ from the brains of larval fruit flies have become a popular model for studying these processes, and one type of neuroblast—known as a ‘type II’ neuroblast—is similar to mammalian neural stem cells in many ways.
When type II neuroblasts divide, they generate another neuroblast and a second cell called an intermediate neural progenitor (INP) cell. This progenitor cell then matures and undergoes a limited number of divisions to generate more INP cells and cells called ganglion mother cells. The process by which stem cells and INP cells become specific types of cells is known as differentiation. However, under certain circumstances, the INP cells can undergo the opposite process, which is called dedifferentiation, and become ‘ectopic neuroblasts’. This can give rise to tumors, so cells must employ a mechanism to prevent dedifferentiation. Researchers have known that a protein specifically expressed in INP cells called Earmuff is involved in this process, but many of the details have remained hidden.
Now, Koe et al. have discovered that a multi-protein complex containing Earmuff and a number of other proteins—Brahma and HDAC3—have important roles in preventing dedifferentiation. All three proteins are involved in different aspects of gene expression: Earmuff is a transcription factor that controls the process by which the genes in DNA are transcribed to make molecules of messenger RNA; Brahma and HDAC3 are both involved in a process called chromatin remodeling. The DNA inside cells is packaged into a compact structure known as chromatin, and chromatin remodeling involves partially unpacking this structure so that transcription factors and other proteins can have access to the DNA.
Koe et al. also showed that Earmuff, Brahma and HDAC3 combine to form a complex that prevents dedifferentiation. An immediate priority is to identify those genes whose expression is regulated by this complex in order to prevent dedifferentiation.