Highly regenerative tissues such as blood must possess effective DNA damage responses (DDR) that balance long-term regeneration with protection from leukemogenesis. Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) sustain life-long blood production, yet their response to DNA damage remains largely unexplored. We report that human HSCs exhibit delayed DNA double-strand break rejoining, persistent gammaH2AX foci, and enhanced p53- and ASPP1-dependent apoptosis after gamma-radiation compared to progenitors. p53 inactivation or Bcl-2 overexpression reduced radiation-induced apoptosis and preserved in vivo repopulating HSC function. Despite similar protection from irradiation-induced apoptosis, only Bcl-2-overexpressing HSCs showed higher self-renewal capacity, establishing that intact p53 positively regulates self-renewal independently from apoptosis. The reduced self-renewal of HSCs with inactivated p53 was associated with increased spontaneous gammaH2AX foci in secondary transplants of HSCs. Our data reveal distinct physiological roles of p53 that together ensure optimal HSC function: apoptosis regulation and prevention of gammaH2AX foci accumulation upon HSC self-renewal.
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