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PLoS Comput Biol. 2012;8(2):e1002377. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002377. Epub 2012 Feb 16.

Branch mode selection during early lung development.

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Department for Biosystems Science and Engineering, ETH Zurich, Basel, Switzerland.


Many organs of higher organisms, such as the vascular system, lung, kidney, pancreas, liver and glands, are heavily branched structures. The branching process during lung development has been studied in great detail and is remarkably stereotyped. The branched tree is generated by the sequential, non-random use of three geometrically simple modes of branching (domain branching, planar and orthogonal bifurcation). While many regulatory components and local interactions have been defined an integrated understanding of the regulatory network that controls the branching process is lacking. We have developed a deterministic, spatio-temporal differential-equation based model of the core signaling network that governs lung branching morphogenesis. The model focuses on the two key signaling factors that have been identified in experiments, fibroblast growth factor (FGF10) and sonic hedgehog (SHH) as well as the SHH receptor patched (Ptc). We show that the reported biochemical interactions give rise to a Schnakenberg-type Turing patterning mechanisms that allows us to reproduce experimental observations in wildtype and mutant mice. The kinetic parameters as well as the domain shape are based on experimental data where available. The developed model is robust to small absolute and large relative changes in the parameter values. At the same time there is a strong regulatory potential in that the switching between branching modes can be achieved by targeted changes in the parameter values. We note that the sequence of different branching events may also be the result of different growth speeds: fast growth triggers lateral branching while slow growth favours bifurcations in our model. We conclude that the FGF10-SHH-Ptc1 module is sufficient to generate pattern that correspond to the observed branching modes.

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