Pluripotency in human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) is regulated by three transcription factors-OCT3/4, SOX2, and NANOG. To fully exploit the therapeutic potential of these cells it is essential to have a good mechanistic understanding of the maintenance of self-renewal and pluripotency. In this study, we demonstrate a powerful systems biology approach in which we first expand literature-based network encompassing the core regulators of pluripotency by assessing the behavior of genes targeted by perturbation experiments. We focused our attention on highly regulated genes encoding cell surface and secreted proteins as these can be more easily manipulated by the use of inhibitors or recombinant proteins. Qualitative modeling based on combining boolean networks and in silico perturbation experiments were employed to identify novel pluripotency-regulating genes. We validated Interleukin-11 (IL-11) and demonstrate that this cytokine is a novel pluripotency-associated factor capable of supporting self-renewal in the absence of exogenously added bFGF in culture. To date, the various protocols for hESCs maintenance require supplementation with bFGF to activate the Activin/Nodal branch of the TGFβ signaling pathway. Additional evidence supporting our findings is that IL-11 belongs to the same protein family as LIF, which is known to be necessary for maintaining pluripotency in mouse but not in human ESCs. These cytokines operate through the same gp130 receptor which interacts with Janus kinases. Our finding might explain why mESCs are in a more naïve cell state compared to hESCs and how to convert primed hESCs back to the naïve state. Taken together, our integrative modeling approach has identified novel genes as putative candidates to be incorporated into the expansion of the current gene regulatory network responsible for inducing and maintaining pluripotency.
Keywords: boolean modeling; embryonic stem cells; pluripotency; regulatory networks; self-renewal.