The formation of a lumen in three-dimensional mammary epithelial acinar structures in vitro involves selective apoptosis of centrally localized cells that lack matrix attachment. Similarly, apoptosis is induced by forced detachment of mammary epithelial cells from matrix, a process referred to as anoikis. Through microarray analysis, we found that mRNA levels of the proapoptotic BH3-only protein Bmf are up-regulated during both anoikis and acinar morphogenesis. Importantly, down-regulation of Bmf expression by small interfering RNAs is sufficient to prevent anoikis and acinar cell death and promote anchorage-independent growth to a similar extent as down-regulation of another BH3-only protein, Bim, which was previously shown to be required for these processes. Knockdown of the BH3-only proteins Bad or Bid does not suppress anoikis or luminal apoptosis or promote anchorage-independent growth, but protects from other defined apoptotic stimuli, indicating specificity of BH3-only function. Bmf mRNA is significantly up-regulated upon loss of matrix attachment or disruption of the actin cytoskeleton, but not in response to several other stresses. Interestingly, constitutive activation of the Mek/Erk or phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase/Akt pathways suppresses the transcriptional up-regulation of Bmf during anoikis. Thus, Bmf is a central mediator of anoikis in mammary cells and a target of oncogenes that contribute to the progression of glandular epithelial tumors. Finally, Bmf is expressed during involution of the mouse mammary gland, suggesting that Bmf may also critically contribute to developmental processes in vivo.
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