Developmental regulation of Bcl-2 family protein expression in the involuting mammary gland

Anthony D. Metcalfe, Andrew Gilmore, Teresa Klinowska, Janine Oliver, Anthony J. Valentijn, Robin Brown, Andrea Ross, Grant MacGregor, John A. Hickman, Charles H. Streuli*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

81 Citations (Scopus)


Epithelial cells within the mammary gland undergo developmental programmes of proliferation and apoptosis during the pregnancy cycle. After weaning, secretory epithelial cells are removed by apoptosis. To determine whether members of the Bcl-2 gene family could be involved in regulating this process, we have examined whether changes in their expression occur during this developmental apoptotic program in vivo. Bax and Bcl-x were evenly expressed throughout development. However, expression of Bak and Bad was increased during late pregnancy and lactation, and the proteins were present during the time of maximal apoptotic involution. Thereafter, their levels declined. In contrast, Bcl-w was expressed in pregnancy and lactation but was downregulated at the onset of apoptosis. Bcl-2 was not detected in lactating or early involuting mammary gland. Thus, the pro-apoptotic proteins Bax, Bak and Bad, as well as the death-suppressors Bcl-x, Bcl-2 and Bcl-w, are synthesised in mouse mammary gland, and dynamic changes in the expression profiles of these proteins occurs during development. To determine if changes in Bak and Bcl-w expression could regulate mammary apoptosis, their effect on cultured mouse mammary epithelial cells was examined in transient transfection assays. Enforced expression of Bak induced rapid mammary apoptosis, which could be suppressed by coexpression of Bcl-w. In extracts of mammary tissue in vivo, Bak heterodimerized with Bcl-x whereas Bax associated with Bcl-w, but Bak/Bcl-w heterodimers were not detected. Thus, Bak and Bcl-w may regulate cell death through independent pathways. These results support a model in which mammary are primed for apoptosis during the cells from pregnancy to lactation by de novo expression of the death effectors Bak and Bad. It is suggested that these proteins are prevented from triggering apoptosis by anti-apoptotic Bcl-2 family proteins until involution, when the levels of Bcl-w decline. Our study provides evidence that regulated changes in the expression of cell death genes may contribute to the developmental control of mammary apoptosis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1771-1783
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cell Science
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 1999


  • Apoptosis
  • Bak
  • Bcl-w
  • Breast
  • Mammary gland

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cell Biology


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