NRF2 is required for neonatal mouse beta cell growth by maintaining redox balance and promoting mitochondrial biogenesis and function

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Aims/hypothesis: All forms of diabetes result from insufficient functional beta cell mass. Due to the relatively limited expression of several antioxidant enzymes, beta cells are highly vulnerable to pathological levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can lead to the reduction of functional beta cell mass. During early postnatal ages, both human and rodent beta cells go through a burst of proliferation that quickly declines with age. The exact mechanisms that account for neonatal beta cell proliferation are understudied but mitochondrial release of moderated ROS levels has been suggested as one of the main drivers. We previously showed that, apart from its conventional role in protecting beta cells from oxidative stress, the nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2 (NRF2) is also essential for beta cell proliferation. We therefore hypothesised that NRF2, which is activated by ROS, plays an essential role in beta cell proliferation at early postnatal ages. Methods: Beta cell NRF2 levels and beta cell proliferation were measured in pancreatic sections from non-diabetic human cadaveric donors at different postnatal ages, childhood and adulthood. Pancreatic sections from 1-, 7-, 14- and 28-day-old beta cell-specific Nrf2 (also known as Nfe2l2)-knockout mice (βNrf2KO) or control (Nrf2lox/lox) mice were assessed for beta cell NRF2 levels, beta cell proliferation, beta cell oxidative stress, beta cell death, nuclear beta cell pancreatic duodenal homeobox protein 1 (PDX1) levels and beta cell mass. Seven-day-old βNrf2KO and Nrf2lox/lox mice were injected daily with N-acetylcysteine (NAC) or saline (154 mmol/l NaCl) to explore the potential contribution of oxidative stress to the phenotypes seen in βNrf2KO mice at early postnatal ages. RNA-seq was performed on 7-day-old βNrf2KO and Nrf2lox/lox mice to investigate the mechanisms by which NRF2 stimulates beta cell proliferation at early postnatal ages. Mitochondrial biogenesis and function were determined using dispersed islets from 7-day-old βNrf2KO and Nrf2lox/lox mice by measuring MitoTracker intensity, mtDNA/gDNA ratio and ATP/ADP ratio. To study the effect of neonatal beta cell-specific Nrf2 deletion on glucose homeostasis in adulthood, blood glucose, plasma insulin and insulin secretion were determined and a GTT was performed on 3-month-old βNrf2KO and Nrf2lox/lox mice fed on regular diet (RD) or high-fat diet (HFD). Results: The expression of the master antioxidant regulator NRF2 was increased at early postnatal ages in both human (1 day to 19 months old, 31%) and mouse (7 days old, 57%) beta cells, and gradually declined with age (8% in adult humans, 3.77% in adult mice). A significant correlation (R2=0.568; p=0.001) was found between beta cell proliferation and NRF2 levels in human beta cells. Seven-day-old βNrf2KO mice showed reduced beta cell proliferation (by 65%), beta cell nuclear PDX1 levels (by 23%) and beta cell mass (by 67%), and increased beta cell oxidative stress (threefold) and beta cell death compared with Nrf2lox/lox control mice. NAC injections increased beta cell proliferation in 7-day-old βNrf2KO mice (3.4-fold) compared with saline-injected βNrf2KO mice. Interestingly, RNA-seq of islets isolated from 7-day-old βNrf2KO mice revealed reduced expression of mitochondrial RNA genes and genes involved in the electron transport chain. Islets isolated from 7-day old βNrf2KO mice presented reduced MitoTracker intensity (by 47%), mtDNA/gDNA ratio (by 75%) and ATP/ADP ratio (by 68%) compared with islets from Nrf2lox/lox littermates. Lastly, HFD-fed 3-month-old βNrf2KO male mice displayed a significant reduction in beta cell mass (by 35%), a mild increase in non-fasting blood glucose (1.2-fold), decreased plasma insulin (by 14%), and reduced glucose tolerance (1.3-fold) compared with HFD-fed Nrf2lox/lox mice. Conclusions/interpretation: Our study highlights NRF2 as an essential transcription factor for maintaining neonatal redox balance, mitochondrial biogenesis and function and beta cell growth, and for preserving functional beta cell mass in adulthood under metabolic stress. Data availability: Sequencing data are available in the NCBI Gene Expression Omnibus, accession number GSE242718 ( Graphical Abstract: (Figure presented.)

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)547-560
Number of pages14
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2024


  • Beta cell death
  • Beta cell proliferation
  • Diabetes
  • Mitochondria
  • NRF2
  • Neonatal development
  • Oxidative stress
  • Redox balance

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