The architecture of normal colonic mucosa suggests that terminally differentiated epithelial cells near the top of the crypt are extruded into the colonic lumen. Morphological studies have identified apoptotic cells among the differentiated phenotypes near the crypt-lumen interface, suggesting a link between pathways of differentiation, apoptosis, and cellular shedding. We studied these processes in HT29 and SW620 cells and found that compared to adherent cells, those cells which were shed during standard, uninduced culture conditions exhibited nonrandom DNA fragmentation characteristic of apoptosis. Moreover, these apoptotic cells, which accumulate in the media, exhibited a more differentiated phenotype.

Because short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are natural effectors of colonic cell differentiation in vivo, we investigated the specificity of three 4-carbon atom SCFAs on potentiating differentiation and apoptosis, and thus accumulation of shed cells in the conditioned media, in these colonic carcinoma cell lines. Whereas the unbranched SCFA butyrate induced a more differentiated phenotype and enhanced apoptosis, two derivatives of butyrate, branched isobutyric acid and a nonmetabolizable fluorine-substituted analogue, heptafluorobutyric acid, were ineffective in inducing either differentiation or apoptosis. Thus, potentiated differentiation and apoptosis in colonic carcinoma cells were linked to SCFA structure and, most likely, utilization.


This work was supported in part by American Institute for Cancer Research Grant 92A05, National Cancer Institute Grant P30-CA-1330, and a grant from the Aaron Diamond Foundation.

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