ELABELA (ELA) is a peptide hormone required for heart development that signals via the Apelin Receptor (APLNR, APJ). ELA is also abundantly secreted by human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), which do not express APLNR. Here we show that ELA signals in a paracrine fashion in hESCs to maintain self-renewal. ELA inhibition by CRISPR/Cas9-mediated deletion, shRNA, or neutralizing antibodies causes reduced hESC growth, cell death, and loss of pluripotency. Global phosphoproteomic and transcriptomic analyses of ELA-pulsed hESCs show that it activates PI3K/AKT/mTORC1 signaling required for cell survival. ELA promotes hESC cell-cycle progression and protein translation and blocks stress-induced apoptosis. INSULIN and ELA have partially overlapping functions in hESC medium, but only ELA can potentiate the TGFβ pathway to prime hESCs toward the endoderm lineage. We propose that ELA, acting through an alternate cell-surface receptor, is an endogenous secreted growth factor in human embryos and hESCs that promotes growth and pluripotency.
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