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A genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9 screen reveals that the aryl hydrocarbon receptor stimulates sphingolipid levels

Majumder, S;Kono, M;Lee, YT;Byrnes, C;Li, C;Tuymetova, G;Proia, RL;

Sphingolipid biosynthesis generates lipids for membranes and signaling that are crucial for many developmental and physiological processes. In some cases, large amounts of specific sphingolipids must be synthesized for specialized physiological functions, such as during axon myelination. How sphingolipid synthesis is regulated to fulfill these physiological requirements is not known. To identify genes that positively regulate membrane sphingolipid levels, here we employed a genome-wide CRISPR/Cas9 loss-of-function screen in HeLa cells using selection for resistance to Shiga toxin, which uses a plasma membrane-associated glycosphingolipid, globotriaosylceramide (Gb3), for its uptake. The screen identified several genes in the sphingolipid biosynthetic pathway that are required for Gb3 synthesis, and it also identified the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), a ligand-activated transcription factor widely involved in development and physiology, as being required for Gb3 biosynthesis. AHR bound and activated the gene promoter of serine palmitoyltransferase small subunit A (SPTSSA), which encodes a subunit of the serine palmitoyl transferase that catalyzes the first and rate-limiting step in de novo sphingolipid biosynthesis. AHR-knockout HeLa cells exhibited significantly reduced levels of cell-surface Gb3, and both AHR-knockout HeLa cells and tissues from Ahr-knockout mice displayed decreased sphingolipid content as well as significantly reduced expression of several key genes in the sphingolipid biosynthetic pathway. The sciatic nerve of Ahr-knockout mice exhibited both reduced ceramide content and reduced myelin thickness. These results indicate that AHR up-regulates sphingolipid levels and is important for full axon myelination, which requires elevated levels of membrane sphingolipids. Published under license by The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Inc.