Background: Basic helix-loop-helix (bHLH) transcription factors play important roles in differentiation processes during embryonic development of vertebrates. In the pancreas, the atonal-related bHLH gene Neurogenin3 (Neurog3) controls endocrine cell fate specification in uncommitted progenitor cells. Therefore, it is likely that Neurog3-regulated factors will have important functions during pancreatic endocrine cell differentiation. The gene for the atonal-related bHLH factor Math6 was recognized as a potential target of Neurog3 in a genomic scale profiling during endocrine differentiation. Herein we have explored the role of Math6 during endocrine pancreas development.
Results: We demonstrate that the Math6 gene is a direct target of Neurog3 in vitro and that, during mouse development, Math6 is expressed in both endocrine and exocrine pancreatic precursor cells. We have investigated the role of Math6 in endocrine differentiation by over-expressing this factor in pancreatic duct cells. Math6 possesses intrinsic transcriptional repressor activity and, in contrast to Neurog3 it does not induce the endocrine differentiation program; however, it can modulate some of the pro-endocrine functions of Neurog3 in this system. In addition, we show that Math6 is broadly expressed in mouse embryonic tissues and its expression is induced by tissue-specific bHLH genes other than Neurog3. Furthermore, inactivation of the Math6 gene in the mouse results in early embryonic lethality demonstrating an essential role of this factor in organismal development.
Conclusions: These data demonstrate that Math6 is a novel component of the pancreatic transcriptional network during embryonic development and suggest a potential role for Math6 as a modulator of the differentiation program initiated by the pro-endocrine factor Neurog3. Furthermore, our results demonstrate that Math6 is indispensable for early embryonic development and indicate a more widespread function for this factor in tissue-specific differentiation processes that are dependent on class II bHLH genes.