The aryl-hydrocarbon receptor (AhR) is a ligand-dependent transcription factor that mediates the biological effects of 2,3,7, 8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (TCDD). In mouse embryo fibroblasts, TCDD activates expression of multiple genes, including CYP1B1, the predominant cytochrome P450 expressed in these cells. Here, we analyze constitutive functions of the AhR in primary mouse embryo fibroblasts (MEFs) and spontaneously immortalized MEF cell lines derived from wild-type (WT) C57BL/6 mice and also from congenic mice with a targeted disruption of the AhR gene (AhR-/-). After multiple passages, primary MEFs exhibit spontaneous differentiation, growth cessation and senescence. Eventually, colonies of immortalized MEFs arise to provide clonal lines. The senescent phase occurs much earlier for AhR-/- MEFs, while immortalization is substantially delayed. Comparison of AhR-/- and WT MEFs also indicates that constitutive AhR activity is required for basal expression of CYP1B1 and suppresses lipogenesis in subconfluent cultures. Primary WT and AhR-/- MEFs and the corresponding lines undergo adipogenesis when treated at confluence with the appropriate hormonal inducers. Addition of TCDD before or concurrent with hormonal induction suppressed PPAR gamma mRNA and adipogenesis, as measured by lipid accumulation, glycerol phosphate dehydrogenase activity and stearoyl CoA desaturase type 1 mRNA expression. This effect of TCDD treatment was absent in AhR-/- MEFs, establishing the role of AhR in hormone-induced adipogenesis. Such hormonal activation of confluent MEFs and preadipocytes results in a limited proliferative expansion followed by irreversible growth arrest. TCDD-treated MEFs undergo the mitotic expansion but fail to exit the cell cycle. In AhR-/- MEFs, there is no such effect of TCDD. These findings implicate the AhR as a constitutive inhibitor of triglyceride synthesis, and as an early regulator of adipocyte differentiation. AhR interference with cell-cycle arrest in differentiation may be linked to the increased rate of senescence.

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