Viral oncoproteins that inactivate the retinoblastoma tumor suppressor protein (pRb) family both block skeletal muscle differentiation and promote cell cycle progression. To clarify the dependence of terminal differentiation on the presence of the different pRb-related proteins, we have studied myogenesis using isogenic primary fibroblasts derived from mouse embryos individually deficient for pRb, p107, or p130. When ectopically expressed in fibroblasts lacking pRb, MyoD induces an aberrant skeletal muscle differentiation program characterized by normal expression of early differentiation markers such as myogenin and p21, but attenuated expression of late differentiation markers such as myosin heavy chain (MHC). Similar defects in MHC expression were not observed in cells lacking either p107 or p130, indicating that the defect is specific to the loss of pRb. In contrast to wild-type, p107-deficient, or p130-deficient differentiated myocytes that are permanently withdrawn from the cell cycle, differentiated myocytes lacking pRb accumulate in S and G2 phases and express extremely high levels of cyclins A and B, cyclin-dependent kinase (Cdk2), and Cdc2, but fail to readily proceed to mitosis. Administration of caffeine, an agent that removes inhibitory phosphorylations on inactive Cdc2/cyclin B complexes, specifically induced mitotic catastrophe in pRb-deficient myocytes, consistent with the observation that the majority of pRb-deficient myocytes arrest in S and G2. Together, these findings indicate that pRb is required for the expression of late skeletal muscle differentiation markers and for the inhibition of DNA synthesis, but that a pRb-independent mechanism restricts entry of differentiated myocytes into mitosis.

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