Human diploid fibroblasts eventually lose the capacity to replicate in culture and enter a viable but nonproliferative state of senescence. Recently, it has been demonstrated that retroviral-mediated gene transfer into primary fibroblasts of an activated ras gene (V12ras) rapidly accelerates development of the senescent phenotype. Using this in vitro system, we have sought to define the mediators of Ras-induced senescence. We demonstrate that expression of V12Ras results in an increase in intracellular and in particular, mitochondrial reactive oxygen species. The ability of V12Ras to induce growth arrest and senescence is shown to be partially inhibited by coexpression of an activated rac1 gene. A more dramatic rescue of V12Ras-expressing cells is demonstrated when the cells are placed in a low oxygen environment, a condition in which reactive oxygen species production is inhibited. In addition, in a 1% oxygen environment, Ras is unable to trigger an increase in the level of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor p21 or to activate the senescent program. Under normoxic (20% O2) conditions, the V12Ras senescent phenotype is demonstrated to be unaffected by scavengers of superoxide but rescued by scavengers of hydrogen peroxide. These results suggest that in normal diploid cells, Ras proteins regulate oxidant production and that a rise in intracellular H2O2 represents a critical signal mediating replicative senescence.
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