Human embryonic stem (hES) cells activate a rapid apoptotic response after DNA damage but the underlying mechanisms are unknown. A critical mediator of apoptosis is Bax, which is reported to become active and translocate to the mitochondria only after apoptotic stimuli. Here we show that undifferentiated hES cells constitutively maintain Bax in its active conformation. Surprisingly, active Bax was maintained at the Golgi rather than at the mitochondria, thus allowing hES cells to effectively minimize the risks associated with having preactivated Bax. After DNA damage, active Bax rapidly translocated to the mitochondria by a p53-dependent mechanism. Interestingly, upon differentiation, Bax was no longer active, and cells were not acutely sensitive to DNA damage. Thus, maintenance of Bax in its active form is a unique mechanism that can prime hES cells for rapid death, likely to prevent the propagation of mutations during the early critical stages of embryonic development.
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