The functionality of stem cells declines during ageing, and this decline contributes to ageing-associated impairments in tissue regeneration and function. Alterations in developmental pathways have been associated with declines in stem-cell function during ageing, but the nature of this process remains poorly understood. Hox genes are key regulators of stem cells and tissue patterning during embryogenesis with an unknown role in ageing. Here we show that the epigenetic stress response in muscle stem cells (also known as satellite cells) differs between aged and young mice. The alteration includes aberrant global and site-specific induction of active chromatin marks in activated satellite cells from aged mice, resulting in the specific induction of Hoxa9 but not other Hox genes. Hoxa9 in turn activates several developmental pathways and represents a decisive factor that separates satellite cell gene expression in aged mice from that in young mice. The activated pathways include most of the currently known inhibitors of satellite cell function in ageing muscle, including Wnt, TGFβ, JAK/STAT and senescence signalling. Inhibition of aberrant chromatin activation or deletion of Hoxa9 improves satellite cell function and muscle regeneration in aged mice, whereas overexpression of Hoxa9 mimics ageing-associated defects in satellite cells from young mice, which can be rescued by the inhibition of Hoxa9-targeted developmental pathways. Together, these data delineate an altered epigenetic stress response in activated satellite cells from aged mice, which limits satellite cell function and muscle regeneration by Hoxa9-dependent activation of developmental pathways.
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