The role of acidic glycosphingolipids in cell growth and differentiation was investigated using the multipotent leukemia cell line K562. When GM3 was added to cell culture media, the growth of K562 cells was remarkably inhibited and the cells were shown to have megakaryocytoid morphology. Ultrastructural study demonstrated that K562 cells treated with GM3 had platelet peroxidase-positive structures, which were considered to be the specific marker of megakaryocyte. Furthermore, AP-3 directed against an epitope present on membrane glycoprotein IIIa reacted with the GM3-treated cells. Free N-acetylneuraminic acid, GM1, GM2, GD1a, and a mixture of bovine brain gangliosides containing GD1a and GT1b did not affect growth of K562 cells or show morphological changes. According to chemical analyses, GM3 content increased in megakaryocytoid differentiation induced by tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate, whereas GM3 decreased in erythroid differentiation induced by hemin. Enzymatic analysis showed that the GM3 increase during megakaryocytoid differentiation was a result of the sialyltransferase activation. These results indicated that exogenous GM3 induced differentiation of K562 cells into a “GM3-rich” lineage, i.e., mainly megakaryocytoid lineage, and that GM3 accumulation in the GM3-rich lineage was the result of the activation of GM3 synthase. These findings strongly suggested that GM3 ganglioside, a minor membrane component, has a crucial role in not only the differentiation induction but also the determination of the differentiation direction in pluripotent K562 cells.

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Supported in part by Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research on Priority Areas No. 02259101 from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Japan.

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