E3 ubiquitin ligase MDM2 acts through p53 to control respiratory progenitor cell number and lung size

Development. 2019 Dec 16;146(24):dev179820. doi: 10.1242/dev.179820.


The respiratory lineage initiates from the specification of NKX2-1+ progenitor cells that ultimately give rise to a vast gas-exchange surface area. How the size of the progenitor pool is determined and whether this directly impacts final lung size remains poorly understood. Here, we show that epithelium-specific inactivation of Mdm2, which encodes an E3 ubiquitin ligase, led to lethality at birth with a striking reduction of lung size to a single vestigial lobe. Intriguingly, this lobe was patterned and contained all the appropriate epithelial cell types. The reduction of size can be traced to the progenitor stage, when p53, a principal MDM2 protein degradation target, was transiently upregulated. This was followed by a brief increase of apoptosis. Inactivation of the p53 gene in the Mdm2 mutant background effectively reversed the lung size phenotype, allowing survival at birth. Together, these findings demonstrate that p53 protein turnover by MDM2 is essential for the survival of respiratory progenitors. Unlike in the liver, in which genetic reduction of progenitors triggered compensation, in the lung, respiratory progenitor number is a key determinant factor for final lung size.

Keywords: E3 ubiquitin ligase; Lung development; Organ size; Respiratory progenitors; Trp53.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Count
  • Cell Proliferation / genetics*
  • Embryo, Mammalian
  • Female
  • Lung / cytology
  • Lung / embryology
  • Lung / growth & development*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Organ Size / genetics
  • Pregnancy
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-mdm2 / genetics
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-mdm2 / physiology*
  • Respiratory Mucosa / cytology*
  • Stem Cells / cytology
  • Stem Cells / physiology*
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / metabolism
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / physiology*
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases / physiology


  • Trp53 protein, mouse
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53
  • Mdm2 protein, mouse
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-mdm2
  • Ubiquitin-Protein Ligases