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Novartis Found Symp. 2003;250:157-74; discussion 174-6, 276-9.

The oldest, toughest cells in the heart.

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  • 1Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425, USA.


We review here the evolution and development of the earliest components of the cardiac pacemaking and conduction system (PCS) and the turnover or persistence of such cells into old age in the adult vertebrate heart. Heart rate is paced by upstream foci of cardiac muscle near the future sinoatrial junction even before contraction begins. As the tubular heart loops, directional blood flow is maintained through coordinated sphincter function in the forming atrioventricular (AV) canal and outflow segments. Propagation of initially peristaltoid contraction along and between these segments appears to be influenced by physical conditioning and orientation of inner muscle layers as well as by their slow relaxation; all characteristic of definitive conduction tissue. As classical elements of the mature conduction system emerge, such inner 'contour fibres' maintain muscular and electrical continuity between atrial and ventricular compartments. Elements of such primordial architecture are visible also in histological and optical electrical study of fish and frog hearts. In the maturing chick heart, cells within core conducting tissues retain early thymidine labels from the tubular heart stage into adult life, dividing only slowly, if at all. Preliminary evidence from mammals suggest similar function and kinetics for these 'oldest, toughest' cells in the hearts of all vertebrates.

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