Activation of ATF6, a regulator of ER (Endoplasmatic Reticulum) stress, combined with changes in cecal microbial profile, promoted colon adenoma formation.
Methods: We analyzed data from 541 patients with CRC in the TCGA database for genetic variants and aberrant expression levels of unfolded protein response genes. Findings were validated in a cohort of 83 patients with CRC in Germany. We generated mice with intestinal epithelial cell-specific expression of the active form of ATF6 (nATF6IEC) from 2 alleles (homozygous), mice with expression of nATF6IEC from 1 allele (heterozygous), and nATF6IECfl/fl mice (controls). All nATF6IEC mice were housed under either specific-pathogen free or germ-free conditions. Cecal microbiota from homozygous nATF6IEC mice or control mice was transferred into homozygous nATF6IEC mice or control mice. nATF6IEC mice were crossed with mice with disruptions in the myeloid differentiation primary response gene 88 and toll-like receptor adaptor molecule 1 gene (Myd88/TRIF knock-out mice). Intestinal tissues were collected from mice and analyzed by histology, immunohistochemistry, immunoblots, gene expression profiling of unfolded protein response and inflammatory genes, array-based comparative genome hybridization, and 16S rRNA gene sequencing.
Results: Increased expression of ATF6 was associated with reduced disease-free survival times of patients with CRC. Homozygous nATF6IEC mice developed spontaneous colon adenomas at 12 weeks of age. Compared to controls, homozygous nATF6IEC mice had changes in the profile of their cecal microbiota, increased proliferation of intestinal epithelial cells, and loss of the mucus barrier—all preceding tumor formation. These mice had increased penetration of bacteria into the inner mucus layer and activation of STAT3, yet inflammation was not observed at the pre-tumor or tumor stages. Administration of antibiotics to homozygous nATF6IEC mice greatly reduced tumor incidence, and germ-free housing completely prevented tumorigenesis. Analysis of nATF6IEC MyD88/TRIF knock-out mice showed that tumor initiation and growth required MyD88/TRIF-dependent activation of STAT3. Transplantation of cecal microbiota from nATF6IEC mice and control mice, collected before tumor formation, caused tumor formation in ex–germ-free nATF6IEC mice.
Conclusions: In patients with CRC, ATF6 was associated with reduced time of disease-free survival. In studies of nATF6IEC mice, we found sustained intestinal activation of ATF6 in the colon to promote dysbiosis and microbiota-dependent tumorigenesis.