The adult hair follicle: cradle for pluripotent neural crest stem cells

Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today. 2004 Jun;72(2):162-72. doi: 10.1002/bdrc.20008.


This review focuses on the recent identification of two novel neural crest-derived cells in the adult mammalian hair follicle, pluripotent stem cells, and Merkel cells. Wnt1-cre/R26R compound transgenic mice, which in the periphery express beta-galactosidase in a neural crest-specific manner, were used to trace neural crest cells. Neural crest cells invade the facial epidermis as early as embryonic day 9.5. Neural crest-derived cells are present along the entire extent of the whisker follicle. This includes the bulge area, an epidermal niche for keratinocyte stem cells, as well as the matrix at the base of the hair follicle. We have determined by in vitro clonal analysis that the bulge area of the adult whisker follicle contains pluripotent neural crest stem cells. In culture, beta-galactosidase-positive cells emigrate from bulge explants, identifying them as neural crest-derived cells. When these cells are resuspended and grown in clonal culture, they give rise to colonies that contain multiple differentiated cell types, including neurons, Schwann cells, smooth muscle cells, pigment cells, chondrocytes, and possibly other types of cells. This result provides evidence for the pluripotentiality of the clone-forming cell. Serial cloning showed that bulge-derived neural crest cells undergo self-renewal, which identifies them as stem cells. Pluripotent neural crest cells are also localized in the back skin hair of adult mice. The bulge area of the whisker follicle is surrounded by numerous Merkel cells, which together with innervating nerve endings form slowly adapting mechanoreceptors that transduce steady skin indentation. Merkel cells express beta-galactosidase in double transgenic mice, which confirms their neural crest origin. Taken together, our data indicate that the epidermis of the adult hair follicle contains pluripotent neural crest stem cells, termed epidermal neural crest stem cells (eNCSCs), and one newly identified neural crest derivative, the Merkel cell. The intrinsic high degree of plasticity of eNCSCs and the fact that they are easily accessible in the skin make them attractive candidates for diverse autologous cell therapy strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cloning, Molecular
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Hair / embryology
  • Hair Follicle / cytology*
  • Merkel Cells / cytology
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Neural Crest / cytology*
  • Neural Crest / embryology
  • Neural Crest / metabolism
  • Pluripotent Stem Cells / cytology*
  • Schwann Cells / metabolism
  • Skin / metabolism
  • Time Factors
  • Transgenes
  • beta-Galactosidase / metabolism


  • beta-Galactosidase