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We investigated the spatio-temporal profile of hemoglobin subunit expression in developing avascular tissues. Significant up-regulation of hemoglobin subunits was identified in microarray experiments comparing blastocyst inner cell masses with undifferentiated embryonic stem (ES) cells. Hemoglobin expression changes were confirmed using embryoid bodies (derived from in vitro differentiation of ES cells) to model very early development at pre-vascular stages of embryogenesis; i.e. prior to hematopoiesis. We also demonstrate, using RT-PCR, Western blotting and immunocytochemistry, expression of adult and fetal mouse hemoglobin subunits in the avascular ocular lens at various stages of development and maturation. Hemoglobin proteins were expressed in lens epithelial cells (cytoplasmic) and cortical lens fiber cells (nuclear and cell-surface-associated); however, a sensitive heme assay demonstrated negligible levels of heme in the developing lens postnatally. Hemoglobin expression was also observed in the developing eye in corneal endothelium and retinal ganglion cells. Gut sections showed, in addition to erythrocytes, hemoglobin protein staining in rare, individual villus epithelial cells. These results suggest a paradigm shift: hemoglobin subunits are expressed in the avascular lens and cornea and in pre-hematopoietic embryos. It is likely, therefore, that hemoglobin subunits have novel developmental roles; the absence of the heme group from the lens would indicate that at least some of these functions may be independent of oxygen metabolism. The pattern of expression of hemoglobin subunits in the perinuclear region during lens fiber cell differentiation, when denucleation is taking place, may indicate involvement in the apoptosis-like signaling processes occurring in differentiating lens fiber cells.

Original publication




Journal article


Int J Dev Biol

Publication Date





873 - 886


Animals, Blotting, Western, Cell Differentiation, Cornea, Embryo, Mammalian, Epithelial Cells, Eye, Eye Proteins, Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental, Hemoglobin Subunits, Immunohistochemistry, Lens Cortex, Crystalline, Lens, Crystalline, Mice, Retina, Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction