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J Electron Microsc Tech. 1990 Sep;16(1):2-14.

Renewal of the intestinal epithelium: new aspects as indicated by recent ultrastructural observations.

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Department of Anatomy, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada.


This article is a summary of our work of several years on the renewal of the intestinal epithelium. A combination of ultrastructural, radioautographic, and light microscopic analyses was carried out using normal tissue and tissue affected by inhibitors of RNA and protein synthesis. Measuring protein synthesis by 3H-leucine radioautography showed that the life span of the columnar (absorptive) cells in the rat small intestine was divisible into two main phases: differentiation (from stem to functional cell) and maturation (from functional to extruding cell), each phase and its subdivisions being well defined morphologically. Differentiation involved a linear rise in the rate of protein synthesis per cell and showed at the same time heterochromatinization and silencing of RNA transcription. Data from various experiments indicated that the cells functioned from stored information (RNA), part of which came from the nucleolus, which underwent marked and characteristic ultrastructural changes. Although transcription from rDNA ceased, the nucleolus released its ribosomal material, which added to the existing protein synthesis, presumably by recruiting excess stored mRNAs. Maturation involved a nearly linear decrease of the rate of protein synthesis per cell to a characteristic low value at which extrusion took place. A gradual exhaustion of the stored RNA was indicated to be the key factor in this decrease. Ultrastructurally, maturation was associated with a gradually increasing vesiculation of rER and Golgi. The results thus imply a regulatory role of cellular protein synthesis level in renewal. This would be an epigenetic response after the genes are silenced. The nucleolus seems to play a central role in this process, and this in turn is reflected in its characteristic ultrastructural changes. The work also included new observations on the epithelium of the rat ascending colon describing a hitherto unrecognized deep crypt mucus-secretory ("DCS") cell which is a nongoblet mature cell type apparently arising from midcrypt mitoses. In between the DCS cells, occasional slender columnar cells were seen which displayed the ultrastructural features of stem cells. These were probably reserve stem cells. We also observed nongoblet deep crypt mucous cells in the human right colon although fewer in number than in the rat. Nucleolar regulation and the presence of reserve stem cells represent new dimensions in our understanding of renewal. Electron microscopy is an essential tool in this investigation.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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