Whole-body irradiation at the minimal lethal dose causes bone marrow failure and death within 12-18 days. To identify the principal components of the hematopoietic system that are radioprotective, we transplanted lethally irradiated mice with purified progenitors: common myeloid progenitors (CMPs), megakaryocyte/erythrocyte-restricted progenitors (MEPs), or granulocyte/monocyte-restricted progenitors (GMPs). Transplanted CMPs gave rise to cells both of the granulocyte/monocyte (GM) series and the megakaryocyte/erythrocyte series, whereas GMPs or MEPs showed reconstitution of only GM or ME cells, respectively. CMPs and MEPs but not GMPs protected mice in a dose-dependent manner, suggesting that erythrocytes, platelets, or both are the critical effectors of radioprotection. Accordingly, CMPs and MEPs formed robust colonies in recipient bone marrow and spleen, whereas GMPs formed small colonies that rapidly disappeared. Direct comparisons of spleen CFU (CFU-S) potentials among each progenitor subset showed that MEPs contain the vast majority of day 8 CFU-S activity, suggesting that day 8 CFU-S are the precursors of radioprotective cell subsets. All animals radioprotected for 30 days subsequently survived for at least 6 months post-transplant, and showed only host-derived hematopoiesis after 30 days. These findings suggest that rare hematopoietic stem cells survive myeloablation that can eventually repopulate irradiated hosts if myeloerythroid-restricted progenitors transiently rescue ablated animals through the critical window of bone marrow failure.
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