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Dev Dyn. 2007 Jan;236(1):156-70.

Atoh1 expression defines activated progenitors and differentiating hair cells during avian hair cell regeneration.

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Virginia Merrill Bloedel Hearing Research Center, Department of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195-7923, USA.


In the avian inner ear, nonsensory supporting cells give rise to new sensory hair cells through two distinct processes: mitosis and direct transdifferentiation. Regulation of supporting cell behavior and cell fate specification during avian hair cell regeneration is poorly characterized. Expression of Atoh1, a proneural transcription factor necessary and sufficient for developmental hair cell specification, was examined using immunofluorescence in quiescent and regenerating hair cell epithelia of mature chickens. In untreated birds, Atoh1 protein was not detected in the auditory epithelium, which is quiescent. In contrast, numerous Atoh1-positive nuclei were seen in the utricular macula, which undergoes continual hair cell turnover. Atoh1-positive nuclei emerged in the auditory epithelium by 15 hr post-ototoxin administration, before overt hair cell damage and supporting cell re-entry into the cell cycle. Subsequently, Atoh1 labeling was seen in 15% of dividing supporting cells. During cell division, Atoh1 was distributed symmetrically to daughter cells, but Atoh1 levels were dramatically regulated shortly thereafter. After cellular differentiation, Atoh1 labeling was confined to hair cells regenerated through either mitosis or direct transdifferentiation. However, Atoh1 expression in dividing progenitors did not necessarily predict hair cell fate specification in daughter cells. Finally, predominant modes of hair cell regeneration varied significantly across the radial axis of the auditory epithelium, with mitosis most frequent neurally and direct transdifferentiation most frequent abneurally. These observations suggest a role for Atoh1 in re-specifying supporting cells and in biasing postmitotic cells toward the hair cell fate during hair cell regeneration in the mature chicken ear.

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