Two clonal rat rhabdomyosarcoma cell lines BA-Han-1B and BA-Han-1C with different capacities for myogenic differentiation have been examined for the expression of muscle regulatory basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) proteins of the MyoD family. Whereas cells of the BA-Han-1C subpopulation constitutively expressed MyoD1 and could be induced to differentiate with retinoic acid (RA), BA-Han-1B cells did not express any of the myogenic control factors and appeared to be largely differentiation-defective. Upon induction with RA, BA-Han-1C cells expressed also myogenin, in contrast to BA-Han-1B cells which never activated any of the genes encoding muscle bHLH factors. The onset of myogenin transcription in BA-Han-1C cells required de novo protein synthesis and DNA replication suggesting that RA probably did not act directly on the myogenin gene. Although MyoD1 was expressed in proliferating BA-Han-1C myoblasts, muscle-specific reporter genes were not activated indicating that MyoD was biologically inactive. However, transfections with plasmid expressing additional MyoD1 protein resulted in the transactivation of muscle genes even in the absence of RA. mRNA encoding the negative regulatory HLH protein Id was expressed in proliferating BA-Han-1C cells and disappeared later after RA induction which suggested that it may be involved in the regulation of MyoD1 activity. The myogenic differentiation of malignant rhabdomyosarcoma cells strictly correlated with the activation of the myogenin gene. In fact, stable transfections of BA-Han-1C cells with myogenin expressing plasmids resulted in spontaneous differentiation. Together, our results suggest that the transformed and undifferentiated phenotype of BA-Han-1C rhabdomyosarcoma cells is associated with the inactivation of the myogenic factor MyoD1 as well as lack of myogenin expression. RA alleviates the inhibition of myogenic differentiation, probably by activating MyoD protein and myogenin gene transcription. BA-Han-1B cells did not respond to RA and the differentiated phenotype could not be restored by overexpression of MyoD1 or myogenin.

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