Mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) are mesenchymal stem cell (MSC)-like multipotent progenitor cells and can undergo self-renewal and differentiate into to multiple lineages, including bone, cartilage and adipose. Primary MEFs have limited life span in culture, which thus hampers MEFs’ basic research and translational applications. To overcome this challenge, we investigate if piggyBac transposon-mediated expression of SV40 T antigen can effectively immortalize mouse MEFs and that the immortalized MEFs can maintain long-term cell proliferation without compromising their multipotency. Using the piggyBac vector MPH86 which expresses SV40 T antigen flanked with flippase (FLP) recognition target (FRT) sites, we demonstrate that mouse embryonic fibroblasts (MEFs) can be efficiently immortalized. The immortalized MEFs (piMEFs) exhibit an enhanced proliferative activity and maintain long-term cell proliferation, which can be reversed by FLP recombinase. The piMEFs express most MEF markers and retain multipotency as they can differentiate into osteogenic, chondrogenic and adipogenic lineages upon BMP9 stimulation in vitro. Stem cell implantation studies indicate that piMEFs can form bone, cartilage and adipose tissues upon BMP9 stimulation, whereas FLP-mediated removal of SV40 T antigen diminishes the ability of piMEFs to differentiate into these lineages, possibly due to the reduced expansion of progenitor populations. Our results demonstrate that piggyBac transposon-mediated expression of SV40 T can effectively immortalize MEFs and that the reversibly immortalized piMEFs not only maintain long-term cell proliferation but also retain their multipotency. Thus, the high transposition efficiency and the potential footprint-free natures may render piggyBac transposition an effective and safe strategy to immortalize progenitor cells isolated from limited tissue supplies, which is essential for basic and translational studies.
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