Interplay between the EMT transcription factors ZEB1 and ZEB2 regulates hematopoietic stem and progenitor cell differentiation and hematopoietic lineage fidelity

PLoS Biol. 2021 Sep 22;19(9):e3001394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001394. eCollection 2021 Sep.


The ZEB2 transcription factor has been demonstrated to play important roles in hematopoiesis and leukemic transformation. ZEB1 is a close family member of ZEB2 but has remained more enigmatic concerning its roles in hematopoiesis. Here, we show using conditional loss-of-function approaches and bone marrow (BM) reconstitution experiments that ZEB1 plays a cell-autonomous role in hematopoietic lineage differentiation, particularly as a positive regulator of monocyte development in addition to its previously reported important role in T-cell differentiation. Analysis of existing single-cell (sc) RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) data of early hematopoiesis has revealed distinctive expression differences between Zeb1 and Zeb2 in hematopoietic stem and progenitor cell (HSPC) differentiation, with Zeb2 being more highly and broadly expressed than Zeb1 except at a key transition point (short-term HSC [ST-HSC]➔MPP1), whereby Zeb1 appears to be the dominantly expressed family member. Inducible genetic inactivation of both Zeb1 and Zeb2 using a tamoxifen-inducible Cre-mediated approach leads to acute BM failure at this transition point with increased long-term and short-term hematopoietic stem cell numbers and an accompanying decrease in all hematopoietic lineage differentiation. Bioinformatics analysis of RNA-seq data has revealed that ZEB2 acts predominantly as a transcriptional repressor involved in restraining mature hematopoietic lineage gene expression programs from being expressed too early in HSPCs. ZEB1 appears to fine-tune this repressive role during hematopoiesis to ensure hematopoietic lineage fidelity. Analysis of Rosa26 locus-based transgenic models has revealed that Zeb1 as well as Zeb2 cDNA-based overexpression within the hematopoietic system can drive extramedullary hematopoiesis/splenomegaly and enhance monocyte development. Finally, inactivation of Zeb2 alone or Zeb1/2 together was found to enhance survival in secondary MLL-AF9 acute myeloid leukemia (AML) models attesting to the oncogenic role of ZEB1/2 in AML.

Grant support

This work was partially supported by research grants to JJH from the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia (GNT1104441, GNT1141081) and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (166011). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.