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Dev Biol. 2010 Nov 1;347(1):40-52. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2010.08.006. Epub 2010 Aug 11.

The retinal pigment epithelium of the eye regulates the development of scleral cartilage.

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Department of Veterinary Basic Science, Royal Veterinary College, London, NW1 0TU, UK.


The majority of vertebrate species have a layer of hyaline cartilage within the fibrous sclera giving an extra degree of support to the eyeball. In chicks, this is seen as a cuplike structure throughout the scleral layer. However, the mechanisms that control the development of scleral cartilage are largely unknown. Here we have studied the phases of scleral cartilage development and characterised expression profiles of genes activated during the cartilage differentiation programme. CART1 and SOX9, the earliest markers of pre-committed cartilage, are expressed in the mesenchyme surrounding the optic cup. Later AGGRECAN, a matrix protein expressed during chondrocyte differentiation, is also expressed. The expression of these genes is lost following early removal of the optic cup, suggesting a role for this tissue in inducing scleral cartilage. By grafting young retinal pigment epithelium (RPE) and retina into cranial mesenchyme in vivo, it was found that RPE alone has the ability to induce cartilage formation. There are some exceptions within the vertebrates where scleral cartilage is not present; one such example is the placental mammals. However, we found that the cartilage differentiation pathway is initiated in mice as seen by the expression of Cart1 and Sox9, but expression of the later cartilage marker Aggrecan is weak. Furthermore, cartilage forms in mouse peri-ocular mesenchyme micromass culture. This suggests that the process halts in vivo before full differentiation into cartilage, but that murine scleral mesenchyme has retained the potential to make cartilage in vitro. RA, Wnts and Bmps have been linked to the cartilage development process and are expressed within the developing RPE. We find that RA may have a role in early scleral cartilage development but is not likely to be the main factor involved. These data reveal the course of scleral cartilage formation and highlight the key role that the optic cup plays in this process. The driving element within the optic cup is almost certainly the retinal pigmented epithelium.

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