• ABCG2 transporter;
  • Stem cell;
  • Side population;
  • Cornea;
  • Limbus;
  • Epithelium


ABCG2, a member of the ATP binding cassette (ABC) transporters, has been identified as a molecular determinant for bone marrow stem cells and proposed as a universal marker for stem cells. This study investigates ABCG2 expression and its potential as a marker that identifies human limbal epithelial stem cells. ABCG2 expression was evaluated by immunofluorescent and immunohistochemical staining, laser scanning confocal microscopy, flow cytometry, and semiquantitative reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction. Cells selected from primary limbal epithelial cultures by flow cytometry with ABCG2 monoclonal antibody (mAb) or Hoechst 33342 dye staining were evaluated for their gene expression and colony-forming efficiency (CFE). ABCG2 protein was mainly located in the basal cells of limbal epithelia but not in the limbal suprabasal and corneal epithelia. ABCG2 staining was also observed in primary limbal epithelial cultures. Limbal epithelia express higher levels of ABCG2 and ΔNp63 mRNAs than corneal epithelia. Labeling with ABCG2 mAb yielded 2.5%–3.0% positive cells by flow cytometry. The ABCG2-positive cells exhibited greater CFE on a 3T3 fibroblast feeder layer than ABCG2-negative cells. A side population (SP) was detected by the Hoechst 33342 exclusion assay. SP cells displayed stronger expression of ABCG2 and ΔNp63 mRNA and greater CFE than the non-SP cells. In conclusion, these findings demonstrate that ABCG2 transporter was exclusively expressed by limbal basal cells and that the ABCG2-positive and SP cells possess enriched stem cell properties, suggesting for the first time that ABCG2 could serve as a marker to identify the putative limbal epithelial stem cells.