Oct4 is a transcription factor that plays a major role for the preservation of the pluripotent state in embryonic stem cells as well as for efficient reprogramming of somatic cells to induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) or other progenitors. Protein-based reprogramming methods mainly rely on the addition of a fused cell penetrating peptide. This study describes that Oct4 inherently carries a protein transduction domain, which can translocate into human and mouse cells.
A 16 amino acid peptide representing the third helix of the human Oct4 homeodomain, referred to as Oct4 protein transduction domain (Oct4-PTD), can internalize in mammalian cells upon conjugation to a fluorescence moiety thereby acting as a cell penetrating peptide (CPP). The cellular distribution of Oct4-PTD shows diffuse cytosolic and nuclear staining, whereas penetratin is strictly localized to a punctuate pattern in the cytoplasm. By using a Cre/loxP-based reporter system, we show that this peptide also drives translocation of a functionally active Oct4-PTD-Cre-fusion protein. We further provide evidence for translocation of full length Oct4 into human and mouse cell lines without the addition of any kind of cationic fusion tag. Finally, physico-chemical properties of the novel CPP are characterized, showing that in contrast to penetratin a helical structure of Oct4-PTD is only observed if the FITC label is present on the N-terminus of the peptide.
Oct4 is a key transcription factor in stem cell research and cellular reprogramming. Since it has been shown that recombinant Oct4 fused to a cationic fusion tag can drive generation of iPSCs, our finding might contribute to further development of protein-based methods to generate iPSCs.
Moreover, our data support the idea that transcription factors might be part of an alternative paracrine signalling pathway, where the proteins are transferred to neighbouring cells thereby actively changing the behaviour of the recipient cell.