Bcl-2 family proteins act as essential regulators and mediators of intrinsic apoptosis. Several lines of evidence suggest that the anti-apoptotic members of the family, including Bcl-2, Bcl-xL and Mcl-1, exhibit functional redundancy. However, the current evidence is largely indirect, and based mainly on pharmacological data using small-molecule inhibitors. In order to study compensation and redundancy of anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 proteins at the molecular level, we used a combined knockdown/overexpression strategy to essentially replace the function of one member with another. The results show that HeLa cells are strictly dependent on Mcl-1 for survival and correspondingly refractory to the Bcl-2/Bcl-xL inhibitor ABT-263, and remain resistant to ABT-263 in the context of Bcl-xL overexpression because endogenous Mcl-1 continues to provide the primary guardian role. However, if Mcl-1 is knocked down in the context of Bcl-xL overexpression, the cells become Bcl-xL-dependent and sensitive to ABT-263. We also show that Bcl-xL compensates for loss of Mcl-1 by sequestration of two key pro-apoptotic Bcl-2 family members, Bak and Bim, normally bound to Mcl-1, and that Bim is essential for cell death induced by Mcl-1 knockdown. To our knowledge, this is the first example where cell death induced by loss of Mcl-1 was rescued by the silencing of a single BH3-only Bcl-2 family member. In colon carcinoma cell lines, Bcl-xL and Mcl-1 also play compensatory roles, and Mcl-1 knockdown sensitizes cells to ABT-263. The results, obtained employing a novel strategy of combining knockdown and overexpression, provide unique molecular insight into the mechanisms of compensation by pro-survival Bcl-2 family proteins.
Keywords: ABT-263; Apoptosis; Bcl-2; Bcl-xL; Mcl-1.
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