Introduction: Pluripotent stem cells are increasingly used to build therapeutic models, including the transplantation of neural progenitors derived from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs). Recently, long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs), including delta-like homolog 1 gene and the type III iodothyronine deiodinase gene (DLK1-DIO3) imprinted locus-derived maternally expressed gene 3 (MEG3), were found to be expressed during neural development. The deregulation of these lncRNAs is associated with various neurological diseases. The imprinted locus DLK1-DIO3 encodes abundant non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) that are regulated by differential methylation of the locus. We aim to study the correlation between the DLK1-DIO3-derived ncRNAs and the capacity of hESCs to differentiate into neural lineages. Methods: We classified hESC sublines into MEG3-ON and MEG3-OFF based on the expression levels of MEG3 and its downstream microRNAs as detected by quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR). A cDNA microarray was used to analyze the gene expression profiles of hESCs. To investigate the capacity of neural differentiation in MEG3-ON and MEG3-OFF hESCs, we performed neural lineage differentiation followed by neural lineage marker expression and neurite formation analyses via qRT-PCR and immunocytochemistry, respectively. MEG3-knockdown via small interfering RNA (siRNA) and small hairpin RNA (shRNA) was used to investigate the potential causative effect of MEG3 in regulating neural lineage-related gene expression. Results: DLK1-DIO3-derived ncRNAs were repressed in MEG3-OFF hESCs compared with those in the MEG3-ON hESCs. The transcriptome profile indicated that many genes related to nervous system development and neural-type tumors were differentially expressed in MEG3-OFF hESCs. Three independent MEG3-knockdown assays using different siRNA and shRNA constructs consistently resulted in downregulation of some neural lineage genes. Lower expression levels of stage-specific neural lineage markers and reduced neurite formation were observed in neural lineage-like cells derived from MEG3-OFF-associated hESCs compared with those in the MEG3-ON groups at the same time points after differentiation. Conclusions: Repression of ncRNAs derived from the DLK1-DIO3 imprinted locus is associated with reduced neural lineage differentiation potential in hESCs.
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