The Eph receptor tyrosine kinases and their membrane-tethered ephrin ligands provide critical guidance cues at points of cell-to-cell contact. It has recently been reported that the ephrin-B2 ligand is a molecular marker for the arterial endothelium at the earliest stages of embryonic angiogenesis, while its receptor EphB4 reciprocally marks the venous endothelium. These findings suggested that ephrin-B2 and EphB4 are involved in establishing arterial versus venous identity and perhaps in anastamosing arterial and venous vessels at their junctions. By using a genetically engineered mouse in which the lacZ coding region substitutes and reports for the ephrin-B2 coding region, we demonstrate that ephrin-B2 expression continues to selectively mark arteries during later embryonic development as well as in the adult. However, as development proceeds, we find that ephrin-B2 expression progressively extends from the arterial endothelium to surrounding smooth muscle cells and to pericytes, suggesting that ephrin-B2 may play an important role during formation of the arterial muscle wall. Furthermore, although ephrin-B2 expression patterns vary in different vascular beds, it can extend into capillaries about midway between terminal arterioles and postcapillary venules, challenging the classical conception that capillaries have neither arterial nor venous identity. In adult settings of angiogenesis, as in tumors or in the female reproductive system, the endothelium of a subset of new vessels strongly expresses ephrin-B2, once again contrary to earlier views that such new vessels lack arterial/venous characteristics and derive from postcapillary venules. While earlier studies had focused on a role for ephrin-B2 during the earliest embryonic stages of arterial/venous determination, our current findings using ephrin-B2 as an arterial marker in the adult challenge prevailing views of the arterial/venous identity of quiescent as well as remodeling adult microvessels and also highlight a possible role for ephrin-B2 in the formation of the arterial muscle wall.
Copyright 2001 Academic Press.