Date of Graduation


Document Type

Dissertation (PhD)

Program Affiliation

Biomedical Sciences

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Advisor/Committee Chair

Michelle C. Barton

Committee Member

Wei Li

Committee Member

Nicholas Navin

Committee Member

Gabor Balazsi

Committee Member

Richard Behringer


Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) possess two unique characteristics: infinite self-renewal and the potential to differentiate into almost every cell type (pluripotency). Recently, global expression analyses of metastatic breast and lung cancers revealed an ESC-like expression program or signature, specifically for cancers that are mutant for p53 function. Surprisingly, although p53 is widely recognized as the guardian of the genome, due to its roles in cell cycle checkpoints, programmed cell death or senescence, relatively little is known about p53 functions in normal cells, especially in ESCs. My hypothesis is that p53 has specific transcription regulatory functions in human ESCs (hESCs) that a) oppose pluripotency and b) protect the stem cell genome in response to DNA damage and stress signaling. In mouse ESCs, these roles are believed to coincide, as p53 promotes differentiation in response to DNA damage, but this is unexplored in hESCs.

To determine the biological roles of p53, specifically in hESCs, we mapped genome-wide chromatin interactions of p53 by chromatin immunoprecipitation and massively parallel tag sequencing (ChIP-Seq), and did so under three

VIdifferent conditions of hESC status: pluripotency, differentiation-initiated and DNA-damage-induced. ChIP-Seq showed that p53 is enriched at distinct, induction-specific gene loci during each of these different conditions. Microarray gene expression analysis and functional annotation of the distinct p53-target genes revealed that p53 regulates specific genes encoding developmental regulators, which are expressed in differentiation-initiated but not DNA- damaged hESCs. We further discovered that, in response to differentiation signaling, p53 binds regions of chromatin that are repressed but also poised for rapid activation by core pluripotency factors OCT4 and NANOG in pluripotent hESCs. In response to DNA damage, genes associated with migration and motility are targeted by p53; whereas, the prime targets of p53 in control of cell death are conserved for p53 regulation in both differentiation and DNA damage.

Our genome-wide profiling and bioinformatics analyses show that p53 occupies a special set of developmental regulatory genes during early differentiation of hESCs and functions in an induction-specific manner. In conclusion, our research unveiled previously unknown functions of p53 in ESC biology, which augments our understanding of one of the most deregulated proteins in human cancers.


p53, hESC, ChIP-Seq, epigenetics, bioinformatics



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