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Dev Biol. 2000 Aug 15;224(2):312-25.

Role of hyaluronan and CD44 in in vitro branching morphogenesis of ureteric bud cells.

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Division of Nephrology and Hypertension, University of California at San Diego, 92093, USA.


Mutual interaction between the metanephric mesenchyme (MM) and the ureteric bud (UB) in the developing kidney leads to branching morphogenesis and the formation of the ureteric tree. A UB-derived cell line, stimulated by conditioned medium derived from an embryonic MM cell line (or, similarly, by 10% fetal calf serum), forms branching tubules under three-dimensional culture conditions (H. Sakurai et al., 1997, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 94, 6279-6284). The formation of branching tubules in this simple in vitro system for early nephrogenesis is highly sensitive to the matrix environment, a key component of which is the glycosaminoglycan hyaluronan (HA). Consistent with this, we found that HA in the extracellular environment markedly stimulated the formation of cellular processes and multicellular cords (early steps in branching morphogenesis) and also acted as a cell survival factor. Inhibition of HA binding to the cells by addition of blocking antibodies to CD44, the principal cell surface receptor for HA, or degradation of HA by the addition of Streptomyces hyaluronidase resulted in decreased cell survival and diminished morphogenesis, indicating that the HA-CD44 axis plays a central role in in vitro branching morphogenesis. Analysis of the expression of a large number of genes displayed on a cDNA array revealed that significant changes in gene expression in cells undergoing morphogenesis in the presence of HA were limited to a small subset of genes regulating apoptosis, proliferation, and morphogenesis. This included upregulation by HA of its receptor, CD44, which was found to largely localize to the tips of branching cellular processes. In the embryonic kidney, HA was found near the developing ureteric tree and CD44 was expressed basolaterally in UB-derived structures. In addition, both UB and MM appear to express HA synthase, suggesting their ability to secrete HA. We propose that HA promotes branching morphogenesis by creating a positive feedback loop that results in (1) enhanced interaction of HA-CD44 at branching tips (possibly leading to localization of HA binding morphoregulatory factors at the tips) and (2) an activated transcriptional program favoring cell survival/proliferation and migration/morphogenesis of cells through matrix by the expression of key morphoregulatory molecules. Furthermore, since HA, hyaluronidase, and CD44 have been functionally implicated in branching morphogenesis in this model, and since HA, CD44, and HA synthase are all expressed in an appropriate spatiotemporal fashion in the developing kidney, we propose that these molecules may, together, constitute a morphoregulatory pathway that plays a key role in sequential cycles of branching morphogenesis in the UB.

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