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J Biol Chem. 1993 Mar 25;268(9):6694-702.

Identification of human intestinal trefoil factor. Goblet cell-specific expression of a peptide targeted for apical secretion.

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  • 1Gastrointestinal Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston 02114.


Trefoil peptides are a recently recognized group of small peptides abundantly produced at mucosal surfaces that offer the opportunity to define mechanisms of mucosal cell-specific differentiation and to illuminate new mechanisms for the preservation of mucosal integrity. We report the cDNA cloning of a 75-amino acid human trefoil factor expressed in small and large intestinal mucosas that is highly homologous to the intestinal trefoil factor, with 70% identity at the amino acid level of the predicted mature protein. This human intestinal trefoil factor is also homologous, although to a lesser extent, to trefoil peptides expressed at other sites in the gastrointestinal tract in man, exhibiting absolute conservation of the P domain motif (CX9CX9CX4CCX9WCF) that defines this family of peptides. These findings indicate a high degree of evolutionary conservation of organ/region-specific members of this peptide family. In situ hybridization of intestinal trefoil factor demonstrates a high degree of expression in mature small intestine villus and colonic epithelial goblet cells. Immunogold staining demonstrates high concentrations of intestinal trefoil factor in the rough endoplasmic reticulum and theca of goblet cells as well as throughout the mucosal surface, consistent with vectorial secretion of this factor by goblet cells onto the intestinal luminal surface. In addition, intestinal trefoil factor was also localized within columnar epithelial cells by immunogold labeling despite the absence of mRNA. These observations suggest that peptide secreted by goblet cells might be taken up from the luminal surface and transcytosed by enterocytes. Human intestinal trefoil factor expression was also detected in the HT-29N2 and HT-29H2 subclones in conjunction with the emergence of the goblet cell phenotype, but not in the CaCO2 cell line that exhibits enterocytic phenotype. In summary, these findings confirm the existence of a highly conserved family of peptides that are abundantly expressed in distinctive regions throughout the gastrointestinal tract in a highly cell-specific pattern reflecting a goblet cell differentiation pathway. They form one of the more abundant constituents of the interface between the mucosa and "outside" environment and may provide a new paradigm of regulation of the integrity of epithelial surfaces as well as a previously unrecognized dimension of goblet cell function.

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