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Development. 1999 Jan;126(1):157-68.

Multipotential progenitors of the mammalian enteric nervous system capable of colonising aganglionic bowel in organ culture.

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Divisions of Developmental Neurobiology and Cellular Immunology, MRC, National Institute for Medical Research, The Ridgeway, Mill Hill, London, NW7 1AA, UK.


The enteric nervous system of vertebrates is derived from neural crest cells that invade the gut wall and generate a highly organised network of enteric ganglia. Among the genes that play an important role in ENS development is c-Ret, mutations of which result in failure of formation of enteric ganglia (intestinal aganglionosis). To further understand the development of the mammalian ENS in general and the mechanism of action of the RET RTK in particular, we have developed and used an organotypic culture system of mouse fetal gut. At the stage of culture initiation, the gut is partially populated by undifferentiated ENS progenitors, but culture for several days results in extensive neuronal and glial differentiation. Using this organ culture system, we have compared the development of the ENS in wild-type and RET-deficient gut and showed that the aganglionic phenotype observed in vivo is consistently reproduced under the in vitro culture conditions. Microinjection of RET+ cells isolated from E11.5 mouse bowel into wild-type or RET-deficient aganglionic gut in organ culture, results in extensive repopulation of their wall by exogenously derived neurons and glia. Finally, using a similar approach, we demonstrate that single RET+ cells introduced into the wall of wild-type gut generate both cell lineages of the ENS, i.e. neurons and glia. Our data show the NC-derived RET+ population of fetal gut in mammalian embryos consists of multipotential progenitors capable of colonising efficiently both wild-type and RET-deficient aganglionic bowel in organ culture.

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