Background: GDF11 modulates embryonic patterning and kidney organogenesis. Herein, we sought to define GDF11 function in the adult kidney and in renal diseases. Methods: In vitro renal cell lines, genetic, and murine in vivo renal injury models were examined. Results: Among tissues tested, Gdf11 was highest in normal adult mouse kidney. Expression was increased acutely after 5/6 nephrectomy, ischemia-reperfusion injury, kanamycin toxicity, or unilateral ureteric obstruction. Systemic, high-dose GDF11 administration in adult mice led to renal failure, with accompanying kidney atrophy, interstitial fibrosis, epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition of renal tubular cells, and eventually death. These effects were associated with phosphorylation of SMAD2 and could be blocked by follistatin. In contrast, Gdf11 heterozygous mice showed reduced renal Gdf11 expression, renal fibrosis, and expression of fibrosis-associated genes both at baseline and after unilateral ureteric obstruction compared with wild-type littermates. The kidney-specific consequences of GDF11 dose modulation are direct effects on kidney cells. GDF11 induced proliferation and activation of NRK49f renal fibroblasts and also promoted epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition of IMCD-3 tubular epithelial cells in a SMAD3-dependent manner. Conclusion: Taken together, these data suggest that GDF11 and its downstream signals are critical in vivo mediators of renal injury. These effects are through direct actions of GDF11 on renal tubular cells and fibroblasts. Thus, regulation of GDF11 presents a therapeutic target for diseases involving renal fibrosis and impaired tubular function.
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