Background: Genetic studies have shown that formation of pancreatic endocrine cells in mice is dependent on the cell autonomous action of the bHLH transcription factor Neurogenin3 and that the extent and timing of endocrine differentiation is controlled by Notch signaling. To further understand the mechanism by which Notch exerts this function, we have investigated pancreatic endocrine development in chicken embryos.
Results: In situ hybridization showed that expression of Notch signaling components and pro-endocrine bHLH factors is conserved to a large degree between chicken and mouse. Cell autonomous inhibition of Notch signal reception results in significantly increased endocrine differentiation demonstrating that these early progenitors are prevented from differentiating by ongoing Notch signaling. Conversely, activated Notch1 induces Hes5-1 expression and prevents endocrine development. Notably, activated Notch also prevents Ngn3-mediated induction of a number of downstream targets including NeuroD, Hes6-1, and MyT1 suggesting that Notch may act to inhibit both Ngn3 gene expression and protein function. Activated Notch1 could also block endocrine development and gene expression induced by NeuroD. Nevertheless, Ngn3- and NeuroD-induced delamination of endodermal cells was insensitive to activated Notch under these conditions. Finally, we show that Myt1 can partially overcome the repressive effect of activated Notch on endocrine gene expression.
Conclusion: We conclude that pancreatic endocrine development in the chicken relies on a conserved bHLH cascade under inhibitory control of Notch signaling. This lays the ground for further studies that take advantage of the ease at which chicken embryos can be manipulated. Our results also demonstrate that Notch can repress Ngn3 and NeuroD protein function and stimulate progenitor proliferation. To determine whether Notch in fact does act in Ngn3-expressing cells in vivo will require further studies relying on conditional mutagenesis. Lastly, our results demonstrate that expression of differentiation markers can be uncoupled from the process of delamination of differentiating cells from the epithelium.