E3 ubiquitin ligase, ring finger protein 138 (RNF138) is involved in several biological processes; however, its role in myeloid differentiation or tumorigenesis remains unclear. RNAseq data from TNMplot showed that RNF138 mRNA levels are highly elevated in acute myeloid leukemia (AML) bone marrow samples as compared with bone marrow of normal volunteers. Here, we show that RNF138 serves as an E3 ligase for the tumor suppressor CCAAT/enhancer binding protein (C/EBPα) and promotes its degradation leading to myeloid differentiation arrest in AML. Wild–type RNF138 physically interacts with C/EBPα and promotes its ubiquitin-dependent proteasome degradation while a mutant RNF-138 deficient in ligase activity though interacts with C/EBPα, fails to down-regulate it. We show that RNF138 depletion enhances endogenous C/EBPα levels in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) isolated from healthy volunteers. Our data further shows that RNF138-mediated degradation of C/EBPα negatively affects its transactivation potential on its target genes. Furthermore, RNF138 overexpression inhibits all-trans-retinoic acid-induced differentiation of HL-60 cells whereas RNF138 RNAi enhances. In line with RNF138 inhibiting C/EBPα protein turnover, we also observed that RNF138 overexpression inhibited β-estradiol (E2)-induced C/EBPα driven granulocytic differentiation in C/EBPα inducible K562-p42C/EBPα-estrogen receptor cells. Furthermore, we also recapitulated these findings in PBMCs isolated from AML patients where depletion of RNF138 increased the expression of myeloid differentiation marker CD11b. These results suggest that RNF138 inhibits myeloid differentiation by targeting C/EBPα for proteasomal degradation and may provide a plausible mechanism for loss of C/EBPα expression often observed in myeloid leukemia. Also, targeting RNF138 may resolve differentiation arrest by restoring C/EBPα expression in AML.

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