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Dev Biol. 1998 Oct 1;202(1):67-84.

A single rostrocaudal colonization of the rodent intestine by enteric neuron precursors is revealed by the expression of Phox2b, Ret, and p75 and by explants grown under the kidney capsule or in organ culture.

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Department of Anatomy & Cell Biology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, 3052, Australia.


The colonization of the rodent gastrointestinal tract by enteric neuron precursors is controversial due to the lack of specific cellular markers at early stages. The transcription factor, Phox2b, is expressed by enteric neuron precursors (Pattyn et al. Development 124, 4065-4075, 1997). In this study, we have used an antiserum to Phox2b to characterize in detail the spatiotemporal expression of Phox2b in the gastrointestinal tract of adult mice and embryonic mice and rats. In adult mice, all enteric neurons (labeled with neuron-specific enolase antibodies), and a subpopulation of glial cells (labeled with GFAP antibodies), showed immunoreactivity to Phox2b. In embryonic mice, the appearance of Phox2b-immunoreactive cells was mapped during development of the gastrointestinal tract. At Embryonic Days 9.5-10 (E9.5-10), Phox2b-labeled cells were present only in the stomach, and during subsequent development, labeled cells appeared as a single rostrocaudal wave along the gastrointestinal tract; at E14 Phox2b-labeled cells were present along the entire length of the gastrointestinal tract. Ret and p75 have also been reported to label migratory-stage enteric neuron precursors. A unidirectional, rostral-to-caudal colonization of the gastrointestinal tract of embryonic mice by Ret- and p75-immunoreactive cells was also observed, and the locations of Ret- and p75-positive cells within the gut were very similar to that of Phox2b-positive cells. To verify the location of enteric neuron precursors within the gut, explants from spatiotemporally defined regions of embryonic intestine, 0.3-3 mm long, were grown in the kidney subcapsular space, or in catenary organ culture, and examined for the presence of neurons. The location and sequence of appearance of enteric neuron precursors deduced from the explants grown under the kidney capsule or in organ culture was very similar to that seen with the Phox2b, Ret, and p75 antisera. Previous studies have mapped the rostrocaudal colonization of the rat intestine by enteric neuron precursors using HNK-1 as a marker. In the current study, all HNK-1-labeled cells in the gastrointestinal tract of rat embryos showed immunoreactivity to Phox2b, but HNK-1 cells comprised only a small subpopulation of the Phox2b-labeled cells. In addition, in rats, Phox2b-labeled cells were present in advance of (more caudal to) the most caudal HNK-1-labeled cells by 600-700 microm in the hindgut at E15. We conclude that the neural crest cell population that arises from the vagal level of the neural axis and that populates the stomach, midgut, and hindgut expresses Phox2b, Ret, and p75. In contrast, the sacral-level neural crest cells that populate the hindgut either do not express, or show a delayed expression of, all of the known markers of vagal- and trunk-level neural crest cells.

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