The annulus fibrosis electrically insulates the atria and ventricles, allowing the timed sequential beating of these structures that is necessary for efficient heart function. Abnormal development of the annulus fibrosis leads to persistence of accessory electrical pathways from atria to ventricles, providing the anatomical substrate for re-entrant cardiac arrhythmias such as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. To better understand the development of the annulus fibrosis and the etiology of these cardiac arrhythmias, we used Cre-LoxP technology to assess the contribution of epicardium derived cells (EPDCs) to the annulus fibrosis. We found that EPDCs migrated into the region of the forming annulus fibrosis, marked by the protein periostin. These EPDCs also stained positive for procollagen I, suggesting that the EPDCs themselves synthesize proteins of the annulus fibrosis. To further test the hypothesis that EPDCs contribute to cells that synthesize the annulus fibrosis, we purified genetically marked EPDCs from the atrioventricular region and measured gene expression by quantitative PCR. These EPDCs were highly enriched for mRNAs encoding periostin, procollagen I, fibronectin I, vimentin, discoidin domain receptor 2, and tenascin C, markers of fibroblasts and components of the annulus fibrosis. In addition, these EPDCs were highly enriched for Snail, Smad1, Slug, and Twist1, markers for epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), and a metalloprotease, Mmp2, that contributes to cellular migration. Our work provides for the first time definitive evidence that epicardium contributes to formation of the mammalian annulus fibrosis through EMT. Abnormalities of this differentiation process may underlie development of some forms of re-entrant atrioventricular tachycardia.
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