Glutamine independence is a selectable feature of pluripotent stem cells

Vardhana SA, Arnold PK, Rosen BP, Chen Y, Carey BW, Huangfu D, Carmona Fontaine C, Thompson CB, Finley LWS

Nat Metab. 2019 Jul;1(7):676-687. PMID: 31511848


Most rapidly proliferating mammalian cells rely on the oxidation of exogenous glutamine to support cell proliferation. We previously found that culture of mouse embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in the presence of inhibitors against MEK and GSK3β to maintain pluripotency reduces cellular reliance on glutamine for tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle anaplerosis, enabling ESCs to proliferate in the absence of exogenous glutamine. Here we show that reduced dependence on exogenous glutamine is a generalizable feature of pluripotent stem cells. Enhancing self-renewal, through either overexpression of pluripotency-associated transcription factors or altered signal transduction, decreases the utilization of glutamine-derived carbons in the TCA cycle. As a result, cells with the highest potential for self-renewal can be enriched by transient culture in glutamine-deficient media. During pluripotent cell culture or reprogramming to pluripotency, transient glutamine withdrawal selectively leads to the elimination of non-pluripotent cells. These data reveal that reduced dependence on glutamine anaplerosis is an inherent feature of self-renewing pluripotent stem cells and reveal a simple, non-invasive mechanism to select for mouse and human pluripotent stem cells within a heterogeneous population during both ESC passage and induced pluripotent cell reprogramming.