p16INK4a protects against dysfunctional telomere–induced ATR-dependent DNA damage responses

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Dysfunctional telomeres limit cellular proliferative capacity by activating the p53-p21– and p16INK4a-Rb–dependent DNA damage responses (DDRs). The p16INK4a tumor suppressor accumulates in aging tissues, is a biomarker for cellular senescence, and limits stem cell function in vivo. While the activation of a p53-dependent DDR by dysfunctional telomeres has been well documented in human cells and mouse models, the role for p16INK4a in response to telomere dysfunction remains unclear. Here, we generated protection of telomeres 1b p16–/– mice (Pot1bΔ/Δ;p16–/–) to address the function of p16INK4a in the setting of telomere dysfunction in vivo. We found that deletion of p16INK4a accelerated organ impairment and observed functional defects in highly proliferative organs, including the hematopoietic system, small intestine, and testes. Pot1bΔ/Δ;p16–/– hematopoietic cells exhibited increased telomere loss, increased chromosomal fusions, and telomere replication defects. p16INK4a deletion enhanced the activation of the ATR-dependent DDR in Pot1bΔ/Δ hematopoietic cells, leading to p53 stabilization, increased p21-dependent cell cycle arrest, and elevated p53-dependent apoptosis. In contrast to p16INK4a, deletion of p21 did not activate ATR, rescued proliferative defects in Pot1bΔ/Δ hematopoietic cells, and significantly increased organismal lifespan. Our results provide experimental evidence that p16INK4a exerts protective functions in proliferative cells bearing dysfunctional telomeres.

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