Long-term culture of male embryonic stem cells in naive conditions containing Mek1/2 and Gsk3a/b inhibitors leads to irreversible changes in epigenetic and genomic stability that compromise their in vivo developmental potential.
Concomitant activation of the Wnt pathway and suppression of Mapk signalling by two small molecule inhibitors (2i) in the presence of leukaemia inhibitory factor (LIF) (hereafter termed 2i/L) induces a naive state in mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells that resembles the inner cell mass (ICM) of the pre-implantation embryo1. Since the ICM exists only transiently in vivo, it remains unclear how sustained propagation of naive ES cells in vitro affects their stability and functionality. Here we show that prolonged culture of male mouse ES cells in 2i/L results in irreversible epigenetic and genomic changes that impair their developmental potential. Furthermore, we find that female ES cells cultured in conventional serum plus LIF medium phenocopy male ES cells cultured in 2i/L. Mechanistically, we demonstrate that the inhibition of Mek1/2 is predominantly responsible for these effects, in part through the downregulation of DNA methyltransferases and their cofactors. Finally, we show that replacement of the Mek1/2 inhibitor with a Src inhibitor preserves the epigenetic and genomic integrity as well as the developmental potential of ES cells. Taken together, our data suggest that, although short-term suppression of Mek1/2 in ES cells helps to maintain an ICM-like epigenetic state, prolonged suppression results in irreversible changes that compromise their developmental potential.