The thymus and parathyroids are pharyngeal endoderm-derived organs that develop from common organ primordia, which undergo a series of morphological events resulting in separate organs in distinct locations in the embryo. Previous gene expression and functional analyses have suggested a role for BMP4 signaling in early thymus organogenesis. We have used conditional deletion of Bmp4 or Alk3 from the pharyngeal endoderm and/or the surrounding mesenchyme using Foxg1-Cre, Wnt1-Cre or Foxn1-Cre. Deleting Bmp4 from both neural crest cells (NCC) and early endoderm-derived epithelial cells in Foxg1-Cre;Bmp4 conditional mutants resulted in defects in thymus-parathyroid morphogenesis. Defects included reduced condensation of mesenchymal cells around the epithelium, partial absence of the thymic capsule, a delay in thymus and parathyroid separation, and failed or dramatically reduced organ migration. Patterning of the primordia and initial organ differentiation were not affected in any of the mutants. Deleting Bmp4 from NCC-derived mesenchyme or differentiating thymic epithelial cells (TECs) had no effects on thymus-parathyroid development, while loss of Alk3 from either neural crest cells or TECs resulted in only a mild thymic hypoplasia. these results show that the processes of cell specification and morphogenesis during thymus-parathyroid development are independently controlled, and suggest a specific temporal and spatial role for BMP4-mediated epithelial-mesenchymal interactions during early thymus and parathyroid morphogenesis.
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